News & Politics

How Protesting the NFL Protests Dishonors the American Flag

The Pittsburgh Steelers side of the field is nearly empty during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game between the Steelers and Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

This morning I read a tweet declaring: “Protest is the highest form of patriotism.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the soldiers buried in the Arlington National Cemetery might be tempted to ask, “Do you think that protest might be the second highest form of patriotism?”

That important question aside (after a quickly added caveat that protests might even be are farther down the list than second place) the tweet was referencing the ongoing and growing protests by NFL players during the singing of the national anthem before the start of each game.

Wanting to draw attention to the believed violent targeting of people of color by the nation’s police forces as well as systematic racism that they believe is woven into our society, NFL players are taking a knee during the national anthem. Other players, though standing, raise their fist in the Black Panther salute to black pride and black power.

The protest is growing, in large part, because President Trump decided to throw fuel on the already burning fire of distrust.

In a series of tweets, the president aired his feelings about the ongoing protests and what he believes should be done to the players participating. One tweet read, “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

A group of friends, all conservatives, that included lawyers and Hill staffers, assured me that the president’s tweets are not a violation of the players’ First Amendment rights. They conceded that the tweets are unseemly, and a few friends went so far as to say that it’s a bad precedent for the office of POTUS.

Regardless of the constitutional stickiness gooing up Trump’s tweets, I can’t help but wonder: If we take the tweet mentioned in my opening paragraph seriously, does that mean Trump’s protest of the protests makes him extra patriotic?

This is the level of silliness we have reached. Sadly, I’m no longer sure that there are enough adults left in the room to enact the needed course correction.

Speaking of adults, this current episode of “Who Can Whine the Loudest?” brought my mom to mind.

Growing up, my parents were deeply conservative – religiously and politically. At times, God and country were even woven together in ways that made it difficult to distinguish which was which. My pastor father presided over patriotic services at church. My mom proudly led the school children under her tutelage in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian flag (yes, the Christian flag is a thing).

Growing up in the late ’70s through the early ’90s meant hating communism. President Reagan’s “Morning in America” generated optimistic pride, and I was taught that only devotion to God trumps devotion to my country. If I had left my baseball cap on during the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, I would’ve received a “patriotic drum roll,” so to speak, spanked onto my butt.

While on a family vacation to Washington, D.C., it was not surprising that my mom quietly complained to us about the lack of respect being shown by a teenage boy standing in front of us who did not remove his hat during the playing of the national anthem. Using the episode as a teaching moment, surrounded by the images and symbols of our country inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, she instructed us on the sacrifices made by many people throughout our nation’s history that have enabled and ensured our freedoms. Later that week, my patriotic mother shocked me, though, by refusing to sign a petition calling for a constitutional amendment banning flag burning.

Walking down the Lincoln Memorial’s long steps, a grizzled veteran wrapped in an American flag approached us with a clipboard and briefly halted our trek to the Vietnam wall. My mom nodded in agreement as the vet explained how sickened he was by the rash of flag burning popping up in early ’90s America. It was only when he asked my parents to sign the petition that my mom frowned, shook her head “no,” and ushered her brood on to the solemnity of the Vietnam wall.

I was shocked and, frankly, felt betrayed.

Later that day my mom explained to me that while it made her blood boil to watch the American flag being desecrated, it was more important for us to diligently guard the right of people to be disrespectful to the flag. Otherwise, she pointed out, the American flag will cease to have any meaning worthy of respect.

The NFL players’ protests are disrespectful, to be sure, but the American flag says that they have the right to be disrespectful without fear of reprisal. Most of them will never appreciate that irony. What’s sad is that those who claim to defend the flag and, hence, the concepts the flag represents are also disrespecting the flag by calling for the NFL players to be punished.

The best response to the NFL players’ protest is to smile and say — genuinely say — “I am so thankful that you live in a country that not only allows you to protest in this manner, but that protects your right to do so. Carry on.”

Symbols are only useful so long as the concepts that undergird them have meaning. Calling for the punishment of those with whom we disagree, no matter how incorrect their opinion and expression of that opinion, does more damage to the concepts that our flag and national anthem stand for than the original protests to begin with. By calling for NFL players to be punished, the American flag’s meaningful content is being removed.

Instead of playing the game of identity politics in which everyone loses, President Trump’s next tweet should read, “I disagree with the NFL players, but will use my power as commander-in-chief to defend their right to protest.”