Why is it such a big deal that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick publicly refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem? Sure, it’s a pre-game NFL tradition. And, sure, it’s expected that Americans show respect to their nation’s flag and stand during its anthem, but there’s no law requiring that. Indeed, the First Amendment to our Constitution gives everyone the right to free speech. Not only was Kaepernick exercising his freedom of expression, he was doing so peacefully. His protest was nonviolent and non-disruptive. So, why all the fuss? Why the firestorm of controversy?
I hope you will indulge me as I attempt to explain why in this article. I’m aware that most people have made up their minds and dug their heels in. This has become yet another polarizing episode in our country, and I’m under no illusion that this article will persuade masses of people. But for the two or three of you still open-minded enough to want to hear other perspectives, I hope you will allow me to lay out mine.
Peaceful Protest is a Fundamental Right
Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem was an act of protest. And Kaepernick has a right to protest. In his case, he harmed no one. And he didn’t do anything to disrupt the playing of America’s song. He simply refused to show respect himself. What he did had all the marks of a peaceful, nonviolent protest. And…
It was effective. No one can deny that Kaepernick has drawn attention to his cause. An important cause. Would we be talking this much about Kaepernick’s views if he simply wrote a letter to his congressman?
I want to be clear on this: Kaepernick has and should have every legal right to sit during the national anthem. No one, in fact, should be forced to stand during the national anthem. This is not Hitler’s Germany where citizens are compelled to salute the Fuhrer or the Swastika. This is the United States of America. There should be no legally coerced patriotism. If a citizen wishes to disrespect the United States, that citizen should have the right to do so. And no American should try to take that right away from him.
Kaepernick’s Cause Should be Our Cause
Not only should Kaepernick have the right to do what he did (or, more properly, didn’t do), let’s agree that the cause he is embracing is noble. Kaepernick, like many others, does not want to live in a country that accepts blatant injustice. He doesn’t want a society where law enforcement officers can kill black Americans (or Americans of any minority group) with impunity. A nation committed to equal rights should be a nation that values all lives regardless of race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and which holds its law enforcement officers to the highest standards of professionalism, justice and accountability.
Kaepernick is correct that the issues of civil rights, race relations, and police accountability are vitally important and should not be ignored or swept under the rug. And while some of the specific shooting incidents are in dispute as to the facts, there are some troubling statistics that deserve our attention as well as an honest conversation across the board. (And there are some police shootings that are indisputably unacceptable!)
Kaepernick doesn’t just attack bad cops, however. He indicts the entire country. The Niners quarterback describes the United States as a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.” That’s an explosive allegation! And if it’s true, then all stops need to be pulled out to correct it. But is his accusation true? The only way to know for sure would be to stop, put all the facts on the table, and then carefully and logically analyze those facts. But it seems the country isn’t taking the time to do this. Instead, we’re screaming at each other and running on pure emotion.
The Need for Healthy Discussion
The United States needs to have a healthy discussion on the issues that Kaepernick and others are talking about. We absolutely need to be talking about race relations and civil rights; life in the inner cities; criminal justice reform; police recruitment, training, and accountability; and much more. All these issues are vitally important. And discussions need to be had. But these discussions won’t happen in a polarized society charged up with hatred, bitterness, and rage.
In order to have this important discussion, we must welcome all voices to the table. People from all races, a wide range of neighborhoods, different political perspectives (right, left, centrist, etc), religious leaders, and so forth should be included. Lots of people. The conversation will only be meaningful if the voices taking part are truly diverse and truly representative of all of America.
And, in that national conversation, we must be willing to engage all the facts, confront all the questions (including the tough ones and the uncomfortable ones), and do so in a spirit of civility and national unity. And that leads us to…
The Importance of National Unity
Diversity only works if there’s something around which to unify. Our unofficial national motto (which predates even our official motto “One Nation Under God”) is E Pluribus Unum. And that means “Out of Many…One.” If we lose the spirit of this motto, we lose our unity. Lose that, and we lose the country.
The United States was founded on ideas. You don’t have to be born here to become an American. You can come from any region of the world and if you go through the proper legal channels, you can become just as much an American as any other American. (The only exception is that only natural born Americans can run for President). Though borders are important, we are a not a nation based on geography. Nor are we a nation birthed by some accident. We are a country founded very intentionally and deliberately on a set of ideals. The United States came into existence on July 4, 1776 with an articulation of those ideals in the Declaration of Independence.
We have always been strongest when we look to the ideas and principles of our founding. General George Washington had the Declaration read to his troops during the American Revolution. Francis Scott Key alluded to the Declaration and its principles when he penned our national anthem during the War of 1812. (We’ll get back to him and our anthem). Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln appealed to the Declaration and the Founders in their fight against slavery. The suffragettes pointed to our founding principles when fighting for the women’s right to vote. And Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently cited our nation’s founding principles when waging the fight against segregation. Put another way, the greatest reformers in history called Americans to the flag and the ideals it represents rather than against the flag. Would that Kaepernick looked to their example.
The Danger of Emotions
Following the American Revolution, the people in France decided to get themselves a new government as well. Rather than separate from an empire, they toppled their own government. And rather than let cool heads and noble principles guide them, they let anger drive them. Rage set in. And the French Revolution degenerated into a bloodbath that led to chaos and eventually dictatorship.
The biblical book of James warns that the “wrath of man works not the righteousness of God.” Whether you are a Christian or not, it’s sound advice. When you let anger get the best of you, it rarely ends well. It’s certainly no way to build a nation.
And what is it that can restrain our rage? What is it that can restrain our dark passions?
An ideal greater than ourselves.
Something like…the American flag.
The American flag and its anthem have emotional power — power given to them by the blood and sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served under the flag. And it’s this positive emotional power that can counteract the negative emotions we see all around us.
Patriotism can unite us. It can and should unite the very people who are divided today. If we want to see better relations between police departments and some inner city neighborhoods, for example, why tear down the things that were given to us by our forefathers to unite us? Why not use our national symbols – like the flag and the Star-Spangled Banner – to cultivate and encourage the justice and unity we all say we want?
It can inspire us. Love of country can get us through the turbulence. If our love of country remains greater than our anger over particular issues or differences, we can come out alright in the end. But if we lose that love of country, then what is there to unite us as Americans? McDonald’s? Kim Kardashian?
The National Anthem
When Francis Scott Key watched the British bomb Fort McHenry in September 1814, he didn’t know whether the infant United States would survive. Had the British succeeded in taking Ft. McHenry, they would’ve done to Baltimore what they had already done to the nation’s capital. It would’ve been devastating. The Mid-Atlantic would have been gutted! It’s hard to imagine how the United States could’ve survived that.
Yet against all odds, the United States held off the British on land and on sea. Ft. McHenry did not fall. Baltimore was saved. And so was America. A jubilant Francis Scott Key penned the words to a poem that would become our national anthem.
The song represents America surviving through a dark hour, proving itself as a sovereign nation. Were it not for the USA enduring the War of 1812, we would not be a free and independent country today. We certainly wouldn’t be the powerful and prosperous nation we are today.
Thus, when the national anthem is played, it’s something that all Americans (black and white) can appreciate. It’s something that should unite all of us. It reminds all of us that, when push comes to shove, we’re Americans! Even back in the War of 1812, black Americans defended their very flawed country against the British. They did this in spite of the existence of slavery in the southern half of that country. Why? Because they were Americans! And, ever since, black Americans, as well as Americans of all colors, have served in every war and have pledged allegiance to the flag under which they served. And, yes, they stood when the national anthem was played.
Why Kaepernick Should Find Another Way to Protest
When someone like Colin Kaepernick refuses to show respect for the American flag, he’s not just protesting a cause. He’s disrespecting an entire country. And not only that, he’s striking at the very heart of what keeps us united as a people. The flag is our symbol of unity. Remove it or undermine it and you undermine our unity.
How many school kids this year will refuse to stand for the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance because of Colin Kaepernick’s example? How many Americans in general will follow his lead? And what kind of precedent does it set? Should people sit out the national anthem for any reason or over any policy or practice in America they deem objectionable?
I foresee a slippery slope here where, in time, the playing of the national anthem becomes simply another platform for political protest or social grievance.
It will cease to be what it’s supposed to be, namely a reminder to all Americans of what we should be thankful for in our country as well as an opportunity to set aside our differences and demonstrate our unity – as Americans.
And it’s all thanks to Colin Kaepernick and people like him – and people who support him.
It calls to mind the stirring lines of Sir Walter Scott’s poem on patriotism. The poet asks:
BREATHES there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
Apparently so. Apparently such a man plays football for the San Francisco 49ers. And, judging by the support he’s received, he’s not alone. And it makes me weep for my native land.