So far as we know, no NFL players spat on or burned the flag this weekend. They didn't drag it on the ground or tear it apart. When the national anthem was performed before games, they did not turn their backs or talk or make rude gestures. Some linked arms in a show of unity; others knelt, an act that connotes respect, piety and humility. In what is normally a rote ceremony before the start of a game, the players, whether they stood, rested on a bent knee or stayed in the locker room, displayed solemnity and mindfulness. Kneeling is not the protocol outlined in the U.S. Flag Code — an unenforceable statute that says all should face the flag while the anthem plays, with hands over hearts or, in the case of the military, in salute — but it nonetheless suggested a commitment to fostering the freedom and justice that is America's promise. It is now up to all those who took part to ensure this protest achieves its highest purpose.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, was probably right when he warned that NFL players, coaches and owners were doing exactly what President Donald Trump wanted.
He thrives on jingoistic patriotism and division. He is adept at changing the subject from the hard acts of governance at which he is failing and the promises he is breaking — from fixing the faults of the health care system to reforming the tax code to keeping us and our allies safe from threats like North Korea — to some new, manufactured populist cultural outrage. What happened on Sunday was probably beyond his wildest hopes when he profanely suggested that NFL owners fire anyone who protests during the national anthem, which he said displays "a total disrespect for everything we stand for."
The protests have nothing to do with the Star Spangled Banner or the flag. Rather, they began last year when quarterback Colin Kaepernick choose to sit and later to kneel during the anthem as a means to draw attention to cases of police brutality against blacks. But Mr. Trump has turned it into something else. He has, as Mr. Sasse says, created a construct in which he can stand on the side of flag and country and put all the "elitists" — including, in this case, players "making millions of dollars in the NFL" — on the other, never mind what the kneeling is actually about.
It's fair to ask what drove so many in the NFL to take an action that, up until Friday night, was treated as something akin to a cancer in the league. Mr. Kaepernick remains without a job, his political activism considered divisive or at least bad for business. Yet on Sunday, not only did some pro-Trump team owners condone or participate in the protests but even Ray Lewis, who once filmed a video of himself denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement and who specifically disagreed with Mr. Kaepernick's actions, himself dropped not just to one knee but two alongside his former teammates.
Is the sudden turnaround because the players, coaches and owners have woken up to what Mr. Kaepernick has been saying? Is it because they reject a president who would seek to quell anyone's right to free speech and protest? Or are they simply exhibiting a tribal reaction to the president in just the same way Mr. Trump is trying to elicit a tribal reaction among his core supporters? After seeing what happened to Mr. Kaepernick, would anyone have knelt during the anthem this year if Mr. Trump hadn't all but dared them to do it, and will anyone continue after the president, inevitably, moves on to some new wedge issue?
Much to his credit, Mr. Kaepernick's protests during the anthem were connected to much deeper activism around the issues of racial equality and justice. He pledged to donate $1 million at a rate of $100,000 per month to "organizations working in oppressed communities" and has stuck to it, despite his current unemployment, winning the NFL Players Association's award for charitable service in the first week of the season. And he has organized "Know Your Rights" camps in various cities for young people "to raise awareness on higher education, self empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios." These aren't the actions of someone who rejects America, the flag or the national anthem but of someone who believes in our individual and collective responsibility to form a more perfect union.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted an elegant rebuke to President Trump on Sunday. "Taking a knee is not without precedent Mr. President," he wrote over a photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others kneeling. "Those who dared to protest have helped bring positive change." But Mr. Holder's tweet was also, in its way, a massive challenge to the NFL. President Trump wanted the optics of players kneeling to score political points. Will the players and coaches make it mean something more?
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