Should NFL Players Stand For The National Anthem? That’s Not The Most Important Question

It’s sad – make that tragic – that our National Anthem has become a symbol of division and a platform for polarization. At least in professional sports (especially in the NFL) how players conduct themselves during the National Anthem is now seen as indicative of where they stand (no pun intended) on civil rights, race relations, police accountability, or Donald Trump. What has happened to us, America? 

Make no mistake. The most important question isn’t whether NFL players (or players from any sport) should stand for the National Anthem. For the record, I oppose any legal coercion to compel them to do so. The most important question is:

What has happened to us as a country?

Read this carefully: I 100% support civil rights, racial equality, and government accountability. And I consider the presidency irrelevant to the National Anthem. The United States is not a perfect country. Never has been and never will be. But I refuse to believe that I must take a knee during the National Anthem or disrespect the flag of my nation in order to show my commitment to righting wrongs in this country. That many would disagree with me shows how confused and upside-down we’ve allowed our politics, and our culture, to become.

The National Anthem, I remind you, is a song based on a poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written when our nation was under attack and on the verge of collapse. Had Fort McHenry fallen, it would’ve basically been curtains for the young United States. Francis Scott Key knew this, which is why he was moved to pay written tribute to the fact that, when the smoke cleared, “our flag was still there.” Key’s poem was written and later put to music in the spirit of patriotism, gratitude, and unity. Virtues we sorely need today.

And our flag, while always flying over a flawed nation full of sinners, nevertheless represents ideals and principles to which each generation of Americans are called to aspire. The truly great social reformers and civil rights champions in American history have always understood this. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t call on Americans to toss out the founding principles of our nation. Rather, he called on the nation to “live out” those principles.

None of this is to suggest we take away anyone’s First Amendment rights. Forcing someone to show respect for the flag or the National Anthem is neither right nor desirable. Nor am I endorsing an extremist view of nationalism that would claim America can do no wrong. Of course, America can do wrong. In the United States, there will always be wrongs needing to be made right. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many people go to the other extreme as well. That extreme being that America has done no right. That extreme is just as dangerous and equally indefensible.

What’s more, I would never suggest that Americans should sweep wrongs under the carpet. It isn’t enough that people respect the flag. We must work for equal justice under the law while we, at the same time, honor our flag. It isn’t one or the other. It’s doing both at the same time.

Some will of course defend National Anthem protests, saying that Americans would never pay as much attention to the protesters’ grievances otherwise. This claim is highly debatable, since one could argue that outrage over a mode of protest isn’t necessarily the attention protesters should seek. But, laying that aside, I simply want to ask: Where does this line of reasoning end? Is anything ‘sacred’ anymore? Or must we continually chase after the most controversial, the most offensive, and the most divisive way possible to express our frustrations over particular injustices? I would like all my friends to carefully consider that question. Once you power up the Outrage Machine, when does it stop? Where does it end?

Showing respect to the flag doesn’t equate with approval of the government or everything your fellow Americans do, say, or believe. It means that you’re “all in” as an American. Not as a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Tea Partier, etc. And not as black, white, male, female, whatever, but as an American.

Not that the American flag is meant to erase our differences or invalidate our individual perspectives. On the contrary, it’s meant to say that, in spite of our differences, we still have SOMETHING in common. And the thing we have in common should be more than TV sets in our homes or a McDonald’s down the street from where we live. Common experiences do not, in and of themselves, unite a country. Common commitments do.

Respecting the flag doesn’t mean you agree with everything taking place UNDER the flag, but it means you are committed to keep the flag flying. It means you are grateful for living in the United States and are “all in” as a citizen of the United States.

If you don’t like what’s happening in America, work to change it. That’s what makes America great. It’s bigger than one person. Bigger than one President. It’s bigger than you or me, but yet, it needs you and me in order to work. And it is frankly something of a cop-out to believe that defying or disrespecting our flag will make America work better. It represents no constructive action on your part, but is more akin to the finger-pointing, “someone needs to do something about that” mindset that permeates too much of society today. That wrongs need to be righted should be seen as a call to action for us, not a reason to walk away from our civic responsibilities. Don’t take a knee on your duty as a citizen of the United States.

Rather than step up to address injustice, too many Americans today would rather kneel down in anger or defiance. Were they kneeling in prayer, that would be one thing, but that’s not the case. The sad truth is that too many Americans have given up on their country and/or find themselves feeling more estranged from it than caring about or for it. And it’s in this sad context that we are witnessing the division and polarization of our country today.

I’m reminded of the lines from the famous poem by Sir Walter Scott: “Breathes there a man, with soul do dread, who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Apparently for many Americans today, the tragic answer is yes.

And it breaks my heart.