For those young people and older bystanders who regret missing the passions and excitement of the Vietnam War era, you’re in luck. Thanks to the NFL and America’s Hyperbolist-in-Chief, the same divisive rhetoric and posturing over the nature of patriotism prevalent in those days has resurfaced, through the sanitized precincts of pro football, no less.
At issue, at least superficially, are kneeling, clenched fists held high, and other gestures of silent player protest during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games. The trendsetter was former San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick, who explained in August 2016 that he was protesting racial injustice, particularly the way police officers in many communities mistreat African Americans.
Kaepernick became a lightning rod for public antagonism. The 2013 Super Bowl quarterback, along with similarly-shunned teammate Eric Reid, a Pro Bowl safety, remains unemployed. Both have filed grievances claiming collusion by NFL teams and owners.
President Donald Trump, no fan of collusion charges, inflamed emotions by disdaining the protesters. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” he declared. “Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’”
The attack brought broader support from fellow NFL players and other pro athletes for the stance – or lack thereof – by Kaepernick. To this day, college athletes remain notably mute.
Meanwhile, the league worked with its players to address their concerns, and to respect their freedom of speech, while asserting control over a workplace ultimately governed by its 32 well-heeled owners and the commissioner they select. But this past Wednesday the NFL, seeking uniform standards, unilaterally announced rules relegating protesters to the locker room upon pain of fines levied against their teams. (Dean Smith supposedly used a similar strategy to sidestep trouble, keeping his Tar Heels in the locker room for the playing of the national anthem during the tumultuous 1960s.)
Additional punishments could be meted out according to rules enacted by individual NFL clubs, a grim prospect for assertive members of Bob McNair’s Houston Texans or Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys. The players’ union immediately objected to being left out of a decision-making process regrettably reminiscent of the worst NCAA paternalism.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made placatory remarks about protesting players when the new policy was presented. “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,” he offered soothingly, his words still unlikely to calm the league’s unconsulted performers. “This is not and was never the case.”
Not one for avoiding controversy, especially one he stoked, President Trump drowned out Goodell’s assurances by resurrecting the worst of the Vietnam era. “I don't think people should be staying in the locker rooms, but still I think it's good,” he said reasonably of the NFL’s new rule. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.” Then he added: “Or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country."
Unfortunately for those who prefer unambiguous answers, the matter of patriotism appropriately expressed in the public arena, if there is such a thing, is less simple than it appears.
Going along with the crowd is easier than pausing to openly consider varying ideas of what constitutes proper respect for flag, anthem and country. Further complicating matters, often it’s only provocative departures from convention that generate attention and debate.
There are explicit rules, defied daily in American life, that define decorous boundaries when handling the flag. Take U.S. Code Title IV Chapter 1, which stipulates “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery” or “used as a costume.” What’s more, in 1942 Congress mandated the U.S. Flag Code, which includes admonitions against flying the Stars and Stripes at night and in inclement weather.
As if. All manner of leisure wear, from towels to shirts to hats, reduce the supposedly sacred to a crass commodity. So do exaggerated decals and other paraphernalia. Even now, if an NFL player appeared on the field for warm-ups wearing a head scarf depicting the U.S. flag, it would probably go unnoticed. And most of us have seen flags heedlessly flown in all sorts of weather.
Clearly, our standards are subjective. What about networks that cut to a commercial rather than share the playing of the national anthem with viewers? Why is that not considered unpatriotic? What about huge flags flown to drum up business, reducing a national emblem to a commercial come-on?
In fact, expressions of patriotism have and always will be a matter of interpretation. Back in the Vietnam era, divergence from the politically correct view of American actions engendered raw anger, intimidation and smear tactics, and the loathsome cry “Love it or leave it” aimed at those voicing unpopular views.
Recent events show that, at least in the area of patriotic convention, challenges can catapult us backward a half-century. Tiresome as it may be to repeat George Santayana’s chastening observation, it’s still worth recalling that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These days many seem beyond remembrance, proudly indifferent to the lessons of the past.
Among those lessons is sports’ uncomfortable service as an avenue for confronting divisive social issues. Think Muhammad Ali refusing military induction in 1967 because he opposed the Vietnam War, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising clenched fists in a black power salute at the ’68 Olympics. Both instances were scandalizing at the time.
Kaepernick and his NFL brethren are honorably following in that tradition, regardless of whether popular sentiment or powerful people approve.
“This is a fear of a diminished bottom line,” Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles tweeted about his league’s latest attempt to contain protests. “It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused. These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”
And around and around we go.