Resistance on the Football Field

It almost has to be a slow news day when the top story everywhere is football players kneeling on the field.  The reason for the kneeling seems to have been misplaced in the excitement over the incident.

According to numerous reports, prior to 2009 football teams stayed in the locker room while the national anthem played, and then came running out on the field (just watch any taped game from 2008 or earlier to verify that for yourself).  The change in procedure is clouded in a murky set of circumstances, but for a number of years the Department of Defense seems to have paid teams for “patriotic displays” at the games.

After a rash of police-involved shootings that did not result in much punishment for the police, Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem.  The protest stirred up emotions immediately, which meant it was an effective protest.  Didn’t do much for Kaepernick’s career, but that was as much a result of a few poor seasons as his protests.

A few other football players joined in, but public pressure (and, no doubt, pressure from the NFL team owners) had all but put an end to the practice.

Unfortunately, it does not mean that we reached the end of senseless shootings, as seen in the recent past:

  • Last week police shot and killed a man who would not drop a pipe he was holding, apparently in a menacing way.  Turns out the man was deaf and could not hear instructions to drop the pipe.
  • A 15-year-old holding a BB gun was shot and killed by police.  They later found a suicide note in his jacket.
  • A man holding a knife and a toy gun was shot with a taser, but unfortunately, two other policemen opened fire as well and killed him.

At least one of the policemen involved in these situations responded humanely (he used a taser instead of a gun).  Perhaps we need to make sure all policemen have tasers and better training on how to use them to defuse situations where they aren’t in any immediate danger.  At the same time, people need to be made aware that if they point a gun at a policeman they should expect to be shot – police must be able to protect themselves from harm.

We have become so used to these kinds of stories that while there might be local outrage, the stories simply seem to fade away all too quickly.  While they maybe should be the cause for protests, that’s not what happened this weekend.

There were numerous protests during the Vietnam War.  A large portion of the population was opposed to the war (especially college-aged students who faced the draft).  Protests were commonplace.  Marches and rallies came first, and then students started taking over administration buildings at colleges, and then somebody came up with the idea of burning the American Flag as a protest against the war.  This was not a protest against the flag (burning is the preferred way to dispose of a flag that has reached the end of its useful days), but rather a protest against the War and the government that was perpetuating the War.  This was a very divisive practice, with immediate calls for punishment by a lot of people who didn’t care too much for the War either but who objected to any disrespect of the flag.  It took awhile, but eventually, the Supreme Court acknowledged that burning a flag in protest was indeed protected as free speech (thank you, First Amendment!) and was simply effective free speech.

And here we are fifty years later with Kaepernick taking a knee and getting people all riled up.  So far it sounds like a beautifully effective form of resistance.  Sadly, its effectiveness was fading until the President (did I forget to mention his name?) gave a speech in Alabama and called for the NFL to punish players who took a knee during the national anthem by firing them.

Something wonderful happened.  Several hundred players took a knee.  Several teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem.  Instead of firing anybody, several owners came out and took a knee alongside their players.

And one brave player in Pittsburgh (Alejandro Villanueva) came out of the locker room and stood at attention all alone.  Props to him, too; resistance can come from all sides and in a lot of flavors, and his determination to show his pride in his country is as important as kneeling down to show your disappointment in the current administration.

The football players were not taking a knee to be disrespectful to the flag or the national anthem, but they are merely trying their best to call attention to what they see as unacceptable in our country.  When the protests were about something vague like “social injustice” it was easy to simply stand at attention and ignore them.  But not this time – the value we place on freedom of expression and peaceful protest is too important.

The country has a long tradition of free speech and protests.  While we may all just want the games to start quickly so we can see how our fantasy football teams do this week, it’s a lot more important to remind the President that he is only a president and not really in charge here.  The President already has enough to worry about without getting his followers all riled up about football players: North Korea, health care, and tax reform should be enough to keep him busy.

There is an important civics lesson here for everybody.

Peter, Paul and Mary started out their career as folk singers in the early sixties. They were one of the most successful folk singers of the modern rock era; they landed at least one chart record in the top 40 every year from 1962 to 1968 except 1967.  Their biggest hit was Leaving on a Jet Plane, a song written by John Denver, and ironically they never again hit the top 100 after that success.  In the midst of the Viet Nam war, they appeared on the Smothers Brothers show and everybody sang along with a small ray of hope, the song Day Is Done.

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