How to have a civil discussion about the NFL's national anthem protests
The NFL is back. And so too is our raging debate over NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Though it seems like this fight has lasted an eternity, it began just two years ago, when Colin Kaepernick, then the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police mistreatment of African Americans. The protests soon spread to other players, and proved to be a lightning rod among fans, many of whom believe kneeling players are disrespecting America's flag and military.
The NFL has struggled to handle the protests, announcing this spring that players must either stand on the field during the anthem or stay in their locker room, before putting that policy on ice. In the meantime, some players still kneel.
My Brothers @kstills and @ithinkisee12 continue to show their unwavering strength by fighting for the oppressed! They have not backed down, even when attacked and intimidated. Their courage will move the world forward!
“Love is at the root of our resistance!”✊ pic.twitter.com/2kSsX4s7EU
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 9, 2018
President Trump, of course, has hardly provided a calming influence.
The NFL players are at it again - taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their “outrage” at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2018
Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our National Anthem. Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2017
At least 24 players kneeling this weekend at NFL stadiums that are now having a very hard time filling up. The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag and our National Anthem. Weak and out of control!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2017
Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison. Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2018
Amidst those tweets, and many more like them, the president also managed to refer to a kneeling player as a "son of a bitch," suggested such players should leave the country, and feuded very publicly with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Those protests appear to be a factor in the NFL's up-and-down ratings, as some lifelong fans say they would rather tune out than see the flag disrespected. But the polls suggest President Trump's repeated public criticism of the kneelers is making the anthem a more polarizing issue than it would otherwise be. Meanwhile, Nike seems less afraid of Colin Kaepernick, who is now out of and suing the league, than team owners do.
Here's the thing: Both sides are talking past each other. The protesters argue that the anthem and the military are not the real targets of these demonstrations. Their detractors focus on Kaepernick, whose Fidel Castro T-shirts and blanket condemnations of the country make him the easiest protester to discredit, rather than other players who have been more thoughtful and nuanced.
And then there's Trump, who appears downright cavalier toward and utterly dismissive of the concerns of people of color.
In an increasingly diverse country, treating patriotism and racial justice as if they are in conflict with each other is a terrible idea. This is even truer given the plain fact that the same chapters of American history will be viewed very differently by the descendants of slaves and those descended from slaveholders — and those of immigrant stock whose families arrived after the civil rights movement, much less the Civil War.
This is manifestly where our overly reductive national anthem debate takes us: You either care about issues of racial justice, particularly the shooting of young black men in questionable encounters with police, or you care about your country's history, heroes, and symbols.
We can do better than this.
A diverse country more than any other requires a common identity larger than any subgroup to which we belong: Share traditions, songs, heroes and displays, yes, of patriotism.
To cynically wrap oneself in the flag for temporary electoral advantage, to mobilize a particular partisan base or get cheers at a rally, shortsightedly sets back the cause of civic American nationalism that Trump ought to represent. It will also, pace defenders of Trump's confident, chest-beating approach, hasten the day when it becomes a mainstream position to regard the Stars and Stripes as little different from the Confederate battle flag and to discard the Founding Fathers along with the slavers of the Old South.
Similarly, people who are sensitive to dog whistles should become attuned to how their own rhetoric sounds to others' ears. Using the national anthem as the precise moment for protesting will inevitably suggest to some irreducible number of Americans a dissent from patriotic displays.
There are white conservatives open to persuasion on the very issues that motivate the protesters. Black and Hispanic veterans, who have disproportionately fought and died under the flag, are an indispensable part of what these displays celebrate, as are the civil rights heroes whose best arguments are a call to more consistently live out American principles rather than a contradiction of them.
Lost in angry arguments over the anthem or whether newer phrases like "diversity is strength" can truly replace the patriotic nostrums of yesteryear is a more fundamental question: At a time when Americans have so many differences, what do we still have in common? Sports used to be one answer. Now we risk losing even that. We are barely united in our consumer culture.
What do the people tempted to kneel during the national anthem see as something that unites us Americans? How would they react to seeing others even give the appearance of protesting those things? And can those angered by the anthem protests make room in the American family for countrymen whose experience with its symbols and history is more complicated?
It is time for the combatants in this culture war to step back from the ledge and seek a more productive dialogue.