After more than a hundred NFL players chose to either take a knee or stay in the locker room during the Star Spangled Banner two weeks ago, people didn’t hesitate to share their feelings. Courtney and I were taking about how one of the purposes of taking a knee was to generate a conversation about race, police brutality, white supremacy, etc., but the original point is often missed because of the national anthem and American patriotism.
Instead of having those conversations, we either yell at people on Facebook or we cocoon ourselves with people who agree with and think like us. As an alternative, we asked a few friends and family members to help us with that conversation. We may not agree, but the main rules were no name-calling and keep it clean.
First up is my friend Whit. He is a devoted Tennessee Titans and Eric Church fan. He and I have had a lot of great conversations about this, and I’m grateful for his thoughts.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been attending Tennessee Titans games. When the team moved to Nashville from Houston in 1998, the head coach was Jeff Fisher, who has long been considered somewhat “old school” – he played for Mike Ditka on the famous ’85 Bears team – and he requested (read: probably insisted) that players stand in line on the sideline with their helmet under their left arm and with their right hand over their heart while the National Anthem was played. My uncle and I always made it into the stadium in time for the anthem and the flyover and it was always a very special moment. It was a moment of unity between opponents, and a time to reflect on the fact that we live in a great country and that flag cloaks us in a sense of liberty and justice.
I’m grown up now (most of the time), and instances of individual athletes choosing to sit or kneel for the National Anthem, as well as thought-provoking and productive conversations with Dustin have opened my eyes to a few things. Most notably, the fact that not all individuals feel that sense of liberty and justice when they think of the American flag or hear the National Anthem. And until the flag does that for them, I can see why protests should continue, especially after the ridiculous remarks of the president last Friday in Huntsville.
This past Sunday, as I scrolled through twitter wondering what the Titans and Seahawks had planned in terms of National Anthem action or lack thereof, I was reminded of an old Jackie Robinson quote that I had read years ago that I found to have aged well, in my opinion, and is sadly still largely accurate, at least as far as I can tell:
“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
And I’ll be honest – this hurts my feelings. I recognize how selfish that sounds. As far as I know, I’ve never experienced prejudice based on the color of my skin, or my gender, or my religion, or anything else. I love America and I think I love what the American flag stands for, to me, and it hurts my feelings that somebody would want to sit or kneel during the Anthem that I’ve come to love hearing over the years. But I can no longer ignore the fact that the things the flag and Anthem mean to me may not hold the same meaning to everyone else. Again, this is especially applicable in light of what the worst president in American history said in Huntsville on Friday.
But you know what else bothers me, perhaps even more? Information like this that came from the tremendous and unapologetically opinionated Titans beat writer Paul Kuharsky via Twitter: “Friend in loop tells me at least 6 different Nissan Stadium suite holders will walk or stay away if Titans players kneel for anthem”. My first reaction: “let em walk”. The more I think about this, the more I think that this would be addition by subtraction for the Titans/Nashville community. Let’s fill those suites with individuals willing to listen to the opinions of the players for whom they’re cheering. I don’t like the idea of bigots representing my city that I hold so dear or my fanbase.
I am reminded of the complexity of this issue when I read the comments of individuals like Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Gerald McCoy who said on Sunday, “no man – president or otherwise – will dictate my actions. I stand for the National Anthem because of troops overseas who risk life and limbs. The president’s words will not change my tribute”. I would like to think that this is close to being in line with my school of thought as well.
All of this to say – I’ve come to accept that because of individuals’ circumstances, beliefs, experience and platform, I understand and appreciate why an athlete would be compelled to kneel or sit for the Star Spangled Banner. My wish is that the same individuals who do so use that same platform and their access to media to express what it is that they are protesting. I understand that many, most, or all of these individuals are protesting police brutality and racism. I say we make that abundantly clear and eliminate ambiguity, because ambiguity of protest message will continue to be a barrier for individuals who presume that these protests are anti-veteran or anti-America. I feel confident that most are not, but I think that clarity of message will help the people who cheered during Trump’s remarks understand why the kneeling is necessary, or hopefully at least start a conversation. And if we are having conversations such as these in the name of unity and understanding, I think we must all be on the same page regarding these issues. Police brutality and racism and indisputably and unequivocally wrong, and I think that the more people who recognize that Anthem protests are protesting THAT, and not the flag or the anthem itself, the more progress we will be able to make together.