Let’s not play around about what’s happening here: Donald Trump and Mike Pence are telling young black men in the NFL, “Shut up and sing.” On the other side, the take-a-knee-for-the anthem social activists in pro football are telling military veterans, “Our message for these three minutes is more important than your sacrifice.” Both sides accuse the other of divisive political “stunts.” Both mean it.
The dynamic driving this difficult issue is not patriotism, or lack of it. It’s sincerity. This is what perpetuates the debate, makes the good people on both sides so incapable of letting it go: Each side suggests their cause is somehow the sincere one, whereas their opponents are just mouthing toxic junk for political theatre. The kneelers are spoiled, privileged NFLers who couldn’t possibly be truly aggrieved about lives lost to racial injustice, and are just making themselves leftist poster boys. The millions of fans who boo and threaten NFL boycott are just conservative soreheads who must be racially insensitive and couldn’t possibly be genuinely incensed over refusing to stand for a flag that has draped coffins.
On Sunday, Vice President Pence committed an act of political stagecraft on behalf of a significant body of people who are angry and feel unheard. Remove for a moment the argument over whether he should have spent taxpayer money to do it. Ask, how is it any different from what the San Francisco 49ers did in Indianapolis on Sunday, using their stadiums as stages for social protest on behalf of communities who feel voiceless?
If you hold conflicting thoughts about the events over the first month of the NFL season, if you feel an uncomfortable tug of competing priorities, if you don’t know whether to agree with 49ers safety Eric Reid when he talks about racial miscarriages that have been “rampant for decades on top of decades,” or with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when he tells players to either stand for the anthem or sit for the game, then you are right where you should be.
No moral dilemma in sports ever has been harder to sort out. It is simply not easy to choose a side, for two reasons: Walter Scott, and Jordan Haerter. Scott was an innocent unarmed black citizen shot in the back in Charleston by a cop during a traffic stop. Haerter was a Marine on guard duty who died in Ramadi, Iraq, stopping a terrorist attack. Whose death deserves more attention?
It’s simply not true that NFL players are more careless than the rest of us of military sacrifices. If anything, they may have closer ties to the one percent of Americans who serve than you or I. A 2011 survey found that more than 100 players and coaches have direct relationships to the armed forces. Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s aunt and uncle are both Army colonels. Chicago Coach John Fox’s father was a Navy Seal. Cowboys defensive end David Irving’s father is a Marine master sergeant, and two of his brothers are Marines.
As for the 49ers’ Reid, his mother is an Army veteran. That has not prevented him from taking a knee to call attention to the death of Alton Sterling, shot by several police bullets at close range in Reid’s hometown of Baton Rouge, after an officer allegedly put a gun to his head and said, “I’ll kill you, bitch.”
“If I need to say it every time y’all ask me, this is not about the military; this is not about the flag; this is not about the anthem,” Reid said, after Pence’s staged walkout on the 49ers-Colts game for “disrespecting” the banner. What it’s about, he insists, is racial injustice, “and I will continue to say and encourage people to educate themselves on how we got to where we are today because it didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen overnight to fix these issues. So we’re going to keep talking about it. I know that I will keep doing what I feel is necessary to use the platform I have to make those changes.”
In other words, Reid and other players are using their NFL stage to make calculated gestures on injustice they feel deeply about. The NFLPA acknowledged as much Monday in a statement defending their actions: “Our men and their families are also conscientious Americans . . . and some have decided to use their platform to peacefully raise awareness to issues that deserve attention.”
It’s a decision I respect, and have defended.
But Pence had every right to “use” that platform too, to redirect attention to those who have died serving. Whatever you may think of Pence and Trump as spokespersons, millions of Americans deeply, and legitimately, feel the anthem is the wrong moment to hijack for a cause, no matter how worthy or peaceful. Among those who apparently feel that way is White House chief of staff John Kelly, the retired Marine general who lost his son Robert to a landmine in Afghanistan. Recently CNN quoted Kelly as saying, “Every American should stand up and think for three lousy minutes.”
If Alton Sterling was from Reid’s hometown, Jordan Haerter was from mine, and three lousy minutes of undivided attention seems not too much to spend on him. He was a lance corporal who died at the age of 20 when he stood in front of a terrorist truck loaded with explosives and fired into it, in order to prevent it from blowing up his entire barracks in Ramadi. General Kelly awarded him a Navy Cross posthumously and described his actions in a 2010 speech to the Semper Fi Society that deserves to go down in the annals of great American oratory for its eloquence on the quiet thanklessness of servicemen and women.
“I have promoted them and unceremoniously disciplined them,” Kelly said. “I have hung decorations on them and court-martialed them. I have visited them mangled and broken in military hospitals around the country, in lonely defensive positions across Iraq, and in brigs. I have known thousands of them over nearly 40 years, and I can tell you without hesitation or qualification that I never met one who would have run from his post that morning.”
So the real question is not: Who is right? The real question is: How can we be the home of the free if we force and pressure everyone to stand for the brave? It’s a hard question, and the only people who are wrong are the ones who think they have it perfectly right. It’s to the NFL’s credit that it has struggled to arrive at a pat answer. The list of countries where patriotism in public stadiums is compulsory starts with North Korea. On the other hand, as has been pointed out by the American Legion chapter in Indianapolis, “Having a right to do something does not make it a right thing to do.”
I’ve talked about these competing “rights” a little bit with another guy from my old hometown, a boy named Yogi Dorelis with whom I used to play touch football. He grew up to do two tours in Afghanistan and five in Iraq as a helicopter pilot, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing wounded soldiers under heavy fire during Operation Anaconda. Which he laconically describes as, “We got back to see another day, that’s about it.” He strongly disagrees with kneeling. Strongly. But here’s what else he thinks, for what it’s worth.
“The only really Un-American thing would be if people were afraid to express how they feel on either side of the argument,” he said. “Sure people get geared, social media blows up, fans boycott, people call each other names. Feel however you want to feel about the issue, post what you want, watch what you want, get mad at what you want, but take a second to appreciate that you can do all that in this country without any fear of serious repercussions.”
In all of this, it’s the only right answer I’ve heard so far.