NFL players kneeling during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner has become a big issue in the United States. It is an issue that should have fizzled out, and probably would have except for the nation’s president, whom some say is winning the anthem battle.
It started in August 2016, when NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the American anthem. He did it to protest police treatment of African-Americans. It was an act of conscience, an exercise of the democratic right of freedom of expression, and a plea for change.
Kaepernick’s courageous statement against social injustice commanded attention. In the ensuing time, some players followed suit. But, it was hardly a movement, more of a one off. Things changed when President Trump, at a campaign style rally in Alabama, appealed to his base, and vulgarly and publicly insulted those players who took a knee.
Trump’s attack on the NFL, which he continues to prod with frequent tweets, occurred shortly after his address at the United Nations where he made inappropriate comments about North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. Trump’s focus on the NFL manipulated attention away from his imprudent remarks, and provided a distraction from his lack of statesmanship and a serious international problem that threatens to spiral out of control.
In a moving show of unity afterwards, NFL teams took a variety of approaches in response to the President’s comments. Entire teams took a knee, refused to take the field until after the anthem, or stood with arms linked, in a few cases with team owners. Unity, however, seems to be dwindling, possibly in reaction to public opinion.
It is quite likely that the president’s attitudes have influenced public opinion, and are the impetus for some of the intolerance and criticism directed at the NFL.
Many Americans see the protest posture as an insult to veterans and to those who died in combat. In their view, the players’ protests are disrespectful and unpatriotic, and should not be tolerated; they agree with their commander-in-chief that players who take a knee during the anthem should be fired. This is a disturbing irony in a democratic nation that stands, hand over heart, paying tribute to the “land of the free and the home of the brave” before every football game.
Owners and coaches can and do set expectations for their team. They can specify consequences for breaking the team’s code of conduct. They can dictate that players must stand during the anthem. However, if they do so now, it will be a form of cowardice, kowtowing to a fabricated controversy breathed into life by the American president. Not only will they be muzzling players, they will be giving up their own freedom of thought, speech and expression. Metaphorically speaking, they will be kneeling to Trump. They will be marching in lock step behind the president, like the army of a dictatorship in a country where there are no freedoms.
Taking a knee during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner never needed to become a full-blown issue. The president of the United States made it one. And that is what makes the issue so very troubling.
Trail BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer with degrees in English and Theology. Contact her at mcewan. firstname.lastname@example.org