Patriotism or Provocation? Opposing Views on NFL Protests

Screen Shot 2019 03 09 at 4.53.16 PM
Screen Shot 2019 03 09 at 4.53.16 PM

This week Carl and Darius take on the topic of NFL players protesting during the national anthem as part of our Political Pen Pals series. See more Political Pen Pals here. And stay tuned for Part II of the debate coming soon! 

Dear Carl —

Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Doug Baldwin and Michael Bennett’s protests have made us question what it means to be an American, what it means to be a patriot, and the role of race in America. Social advancement has historically required struggle and has been led through protest and sit-ins much like what we’re seeing today. The actions of these players are aimed at creating ideological and political intervention in a nation where black and brown lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.

As players have made explicitly clear, these protests are in opposition to systemic oppression, specifically, police brutality against black and brown Americans. This being said, I’ve noticed a recurring rhetoric from those opposed to these protests: that during the national anthem is an inappropriate time to do this, that these actions disrespect our flag and our military, and that they are unpatriotic. While some might understand, agree, or even support these protests, they say that there are better, more respectful, alternatives to kneeling.

The American flag and the national anthem are declarations of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest. Ideals supposedly promised to all Americans. The actions of these players have nothing to do with disrespecting the military, they’ve made that clear. The military does not own the flag and the idea that it ever has is a false narrative. Our great military did not fight and die for a flag, they fought and died for what that flag represents.

Kaepernick, Reid and Bennett’s actions have been nothing less than courageous and are an exemplary demonstration of patriotism. Player protests indicate a deeper understanding of the first amendment and what it really means for all Americans to have freedom, justice and equality. If standing were compulsory, it would be inherently unpatriotic. It would be blind nationalism.

Opponents have argued that Kaepernick’s efforts come at an inappropriate time. This is an age old argument that is code for “stop fighting.” Martin Luther King confronted the same arguments fifty years ago. When his methods and timing were questioned, King explained “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.” The opposition to MLK’s actions tell us that the timing will never be right, that the methods will never be acceptable, and that the problem is in the message of these protests.

To oppose or dismiss these protests is to intentionally disregard what these athletes are saying and avoid having a very difficult discussion. Dismissing these protests to avoid having a conversation about the race issues that exist in our country is, quite frankly, cowardly. Racialized oppression is woven into the social fabric of our country and discussing this topic has been and never will be easy, but it is a discussion that needs to happen. In your response, I challenge you to propose a better, more appropriate way of protest that you think might have created the same amount of conversation and traction around race and police brutality in our country.

As history will tell us, protest is unpopular and social progress is met with opposition. In order for protest to be effective, it must make people uncomfortable. I hope that Americans will stop dismissing and start listening. I hope that those who stand so adamantly against these protests attempt to better understand the perspective from which these men are coming from. I hope that people begin to start looking at these players as more than athletes, but as Americans and patriots. I hope that people stop focusing on the act of kneeling and start focusing on the issues at hand. To quote Kaepernick himself, “How can you stand for the national anthem of a country that preaches and propagates freedom and justice for all that is so unjust to so many of the people living there?”


Dear Darius —


I commend you for your passionate and provocative editorial.  But I disagree. I think that there are more respectful and efficient ways of addressing the problems that you cite and that, when put in perspective, these problems do not justify kneeling for the National Anthem.

First, I am not as clear as you are as to exactly what the NFL players seek to protest by silently taking a knee or raising a fist during the National Anthem. Their verbal explanations have tended to vary, depending on current events.  Their message seems to be a very muddled one, especially to the average NFL fan.

For the sake of discussion, I will accept your explanation that NFL players are protesting a “nation where black and brown lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise” as well as “systemic oppression, specifically, police brutality against black and brown Americans.”  During the time when I grew in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, blacks were convicted by all white juries and sentenced to death, police routinely beat civil rights demonstrators with batons, blacks and minorities were excluded from public schools at all levels, bathrooms in the South still existed for “coloreds,” few minorities (or women) had leadership positions, and, tragically, Martin Luther King was assassinated.  We must recognize how much better our country is today.  Racism still exists, and must not be tolerated, but it is nothing like it was fifty years ago.

Let us talk about police misconduct. The mere fact that a white officer shoots at, or even kills, a black suspect does not indicate police misconduct or racism.  If the suspect, regardless of color, has a gun and poses an imminent threat to the lives of the police officers or citizens, police generally have the right to use deadly force.  In many cases, police are protecting innocent minority citizens who disproportionately are the victims of gun violence according to FBI statistics.  The facts of each case vary and require close analysis rather than sweeping generalizations based only on demographics.

I will nonetheless concede that, in our nation of over 300 million people, there are some people who engage in hate crimes and speech (though hate crimes are now vigorously prosecuted), some police officers who make racist assumptions, and other police officers who have committed tragic mistakes in those critical seconds that they have to make life or death decisions. But, human nature being what it is, are these facts really a mark against the United States?   Does the presence of these bad apples in our society constitute a reason to take a knee during the National Anthem?

Unless you live in Shangri-La, or perhaps Iceland or Tahiti, you live in a country with some form of injustice or incivility.  Surely one of the measures of an advanced society is what it does to address these problems.  The fact of the matter is that there is no other country in the world that affords the remedies for police misconduct that we provide. In few other countries can you get a jury trial in a civil suit against a police officer.  In no other country does the exclusionary rule operate to keep evidence seized as a result of illegal police action out of a criminal trial. Other remedies include criminal prosecutions and disciplinary proceedings against police officers.  The latter are now taking place in the New York case involving the death of Eric Garner.  These remedies are sometimes slow and frustrating.  But I can say, after having worked with law enforcement for almost forty years, that the level of conduct and professionalism in law enforcement has improved dramatically over that time period, largely because of these remedies and sanctions.

Thus, I do not believe that, when put in perspective, the issue of racism and police misconduct in this country is out-of-control, systemic, or neglected. Americans face numerous other controversial issues of similar magnitude, such as immigration, access to health care, abortion, and gun control.  I would assume that NFL players have attitudes on these issues that are as diverse as those of the American public.  Should other NFL players take a knee because they disagree with DACA, Obamacare, Roe v. Wade, or an assault weapons ban?  Perhaps everyone should just sit for the National Anthem in protest on some important issue.

The United States is surely not a perfect country.  It is, however, a diverse country, which sometimes creates tensions but, on the whole, makes us stronger.  Despite all the systematic racism that you perceive, immigrants of all colors still desperately want to live here (and we should welcome those who legally attempt to do so!). May I also remind you that, over the past 75 years, the United States has saved the free world from fascism, Nazism, Communism, and, to a large part, terrorism — all isms that would truly deny rights systematically to people on the ground of race, religion, or nationality.  Although you claim that protesting NFL players are patriotic, why is that they will not perform a simple act that recognizes some of these facts and that demonstrates that we should stand together in America to preserve and improve it?

I accept your point that protesting NFL players do not intend to show disrespect for the military.  But their protests have that effect.  Veterans who put their lives on the line for our country, and for the Anthem and flag that symbolize it, cannot help feeling betrayed when they see NFL players who will not even stand up for that same symbol.

You challenge your opponents to “propose a better, more appropriate way of protest.”  Although I don’t think that one has to “protest” in order to gain publicity or to effect change, I can think of numerous alternative approaches that NFL players can take.  First, NFL players can buy TV ads or go on social media with their cause.  They can certainly afford it.  I recently saw a TV piece done by LeBron James about improving Akron, Ohio schools that was very effective.  Second, concerned players can work with police to establish better relationships with minority neighborhoods (and I assume some do). Alternatively, NFL players can contribute to a legal defense fund for victims of police violence. Finally, players can truly exercise their first amendment rights and vote.  That is more than Colin Kaepernick did in the 2016 election.  I think all of these methods are more effective than an incoherent knee or fist during the National Anthem that many people conclude lacks justification and that some people will understandably resent.


This debate is still ongoing. Stay tuned for Part II!  See more Political Pen Pals here.

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Joseph Schuman
Editor-in-Chief at Divided We Fall | + posts

Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.

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