I may still be a supporter of President Trump, but I actually rolled my eyes when he suggested during his Alabama rally that N.F.L. ratings were down because people like watching what’s happening with “yours truly.” On the contrary, one of the reasons I enjoy watching sports is to escape the often hostile environment of American politics. In recent years, however, many aspects of American culture, including Hollywood with its celebrity-led rallies and Trump-bashing awards shows, have fallen victim to the increasingly unfriendly political climate in the United States. The president made the situation worse by attacking the N.F.L., and many teams only polarized the situation more.
Sunday night football following the president’s remarks brought something never before seen in N.F.L. history. Players, and in some cases, entire teams, knelt or stayed in the locker room during the national anthem.
Playing of the national anthem before sporting events was popularized in the forties, following World War II. In 1945 N.F.L. commissioner Elmer Layden said, “The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff. We must not drop [the anthem] simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”
In 2016, former N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to take a knee to protest what he called racial and social injustice. What started as a protest for racial equality in the United States last year has turned into a defiant, widespread stand against President Trump and his polarizing comments. In kneeling, N.F.L. players were taking a stand.
Was refusing to stand for the national anthem really an appropriate response to the president’s temper tantrum? The country is split. Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, said, “That flag is more than just a symbol of our nation, it means all that’s right about our country. And the disrespect that anyone, not just sports people, show toward the flag, which goes hand in hand with the national anthem, is something other veterans don’t tolerate.” Many Americans see taking a knee and not paying respect to the flag during the playing of the national anthem as a direct insult to those who fight to protect our country and the values the flag represents. Even among veterans, opinions vary. Others regard the outrage some feel towards those who kneel during the anthem as a way to deflect focus from the “actual” issues being protested, such as social and racial injustice.
Veterans fight to protect the rights that we cherish as Americans. The way I see it, those rights include the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Isn’t it beautiful? We can protest however we want, no matter how controversial or disrespectful the protest may seem, so long as it doesn’t incite violence or hate speech.
So, the debate across America is not “can they,” because clearly they can, but “should they”. As a loyal follower of football, I would rather not see political protests and the N.F.L. mixed together. Players in the N.F.L. participating in this protest are taking two of the things that unite us as Americans, honoring the flag and the national anthem, and creating a point of division. The N.F.L. game operations manual itself says, “during the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking.” The N.F.L. has every right to enforce these standards.
It’s my opinion that it is not appropriate to protest while on the job and I think the writers of the N.F.L. manual agree with me. How would we react if masses of flight attendants, restaurant servers, or employees of any other profession were to protest while working? One answer to this question comes from Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying she was acting “under God’s authority.” Agree with Mrs. Davis or not, she was sued and tossed in jail for refusing to do what was required of her in her line of work. Upon her release, she was ordered not to continue her “protest” and allow marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples. In 2016, the owners of the bakery Sweet Cakes Melissa was sued when they refused to bake a cake for a lesbian marriage, citing their religious beliefs. They lost the legal battle and subsequently closed shop.
I am all for any American exercising their first amendment privileges to further their cause. It’s our right and duty as Americans! As professional athletes, N.F.L. players should use their platform to fight for what they believe in, but I would be so bold as to suggest that professional football players be held to the same standards as any American citizen. No matter how big their paychecks, they are employees, with codes of conduct just like the rest of us.
As much as NFL players have the right to kneel during the national anthem, fans have the right to boo. Teams can sit in the locker room during the anthem, and viewers can decide to boycott. The N.F.L. certainly has the right to fine, suspend, and fire players who disregard the rules, just as any organization can punish its employees. As much as I may think the protest to be misguided, inappropriate, and a little infuriating, they have every right, under the law, to protest as they’d like. President Trump, disgruntled citizens, and war veterans can’t take that away from them. However, the N.F.L. can. And I hope they do.
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