The past few weeks have been full of sports news well outside the comfortable norms of scores and analysis. They have been dominated by images of NFL players kneeling in protest during the National Anthem or forgoing being on the field at all while it is being played. The reason for the protest is the mistreatment and violence perpetrated against people of color at the hands of law enforcement. First, it’s important to state that this is a cause worthy of attention and, yes, of protest. But the question that I think many folks have felt in their gut, myself included, is “I agree, NFL players, that this is an issue that we need to address as a society and I applaud your desire to draw attention to it and use your platform for the benefit of society, but is there a way to do it other than this?”
Here’s why I struggle with this particular form of protest. As a member of the military one of the things that is a large part of my identity is respect and honor for the flag of the United States. The way I started my days at Fort Stewart was standing at attention during physical training formation as “Reveille” played, a cannon boomed, and the colors were raised in front of the Division headquarters. Then, at the close of the duty day at 1700 the notes of “Retreat” and “To The Colors” would sound. During those moments, activity on post stops. Cars pull to the side of the road and Soldiers get out. Kids pause from their play and face the direction of the flag. As the “To The Colors” plays, honors are rendered in the form of the hand salute or a hand placed over the heart and held until the last note fades into the evening.
I’ve participated in numerous funerals for veterans and service members, including my wife’s Grandfather who served in WWII. During these solemn occasions I have stood at attention as a flag draped coffin was pulled from a hearse and saluted the flag under which they served and now rest. I’ve watched an honor guard fold that flag with precision. Each movement is carefully rehearsed and performed with the utmost attention to detail as a testament to the honor due the person who served. Then the folded flag is presented to the next of kin, often with the blank rounds from the rifle volleys tucked inside, on behalf of a grateful nation. It’s a final act of thanks and honor for the service of the person who labored under that flag for the cause of the country and one of the most poignant and meaningful moments for family members left behind.
So when I see folks exercising their First Amendment right to protest and choosing to do so by sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem, it evokes a very emotional response for me. On the one hand, I empathize with their reason for protesting. Police violence against people of color is something we should all stand up against. On the other hand, the flag for me and for many others is not just about past history and current events, but also about an ideal.
It’s an ideal enshrined in our founding documents that says all men are created equal. It’s an ideal repeated in our Pledge of Allegiance that says, “liberty and justice for all.” It’s an ideal sung in our National Anthem that America is a land of freedom and of brave people willing to put their lives on the line to preserve that freedom. Now, in all honesty, we very often fall short of those ideals. Our history is littered with dark moments from slavery, to the Trail of Tears, to eugenics, to abortion, to Jim Crow, to the profiling of and use of violence against people because of their skin color. I don’t celebrate these things. I mourn them and hopefully learn from those injustices in the past in order to stand up against those injustices that are still a part of the fabric of our nation.
But that flag and our National Anthem aren’t just about the history or the current struggles. They are also about the the ideal. So I will stand and render honor when our National Anthem is played because I still believe in the ideal of liberty and justice for all and in honoring those who have fought and fallen in hopes of preserving those ideals for future generations. I acknowledge that we aren’t there yet and that those who have born the brunt of that injustice are people of color. So while I stand for the flag and the ideals the flag represents, I will also stand with my brothers and sisters of color to push back against the systems that would oppress them while believing along with Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” My hope is that through serving this country and standing alongside those who still struggle to realize the promises of the flag represents that we can continue the work to bend that arc ever more toward justice.
Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart, GA where 468 trees are planted to memorialize the 468 Soldiers killed in action from the 3rd Infantry Division during the Global War on Terror.
So to those NFL players sitting, kneeling, or remaining in the lockers rooms…I respect your right to protest and I’m grateful we live in a country where you are free to do so. I also agree with your reason for protesting. But I would ask you to consider that, even though we aren’t there yet as a country, the flag and the anthem also represent an ideal and those ideals are worth honoring, defending, and fighting for.
This We’ll Defend