Football, the First Amendment, and Patriotismby MoCoFootball Staff on 09/19/16
Darian Holmes, Staff Writer
The notion that sports and social movements are not compatible has been an assumption that continually appears every so often. Once again, we are at a crossroads between sports and social movements, although it is ironic that following Muhammad Ali's passing, there were many who spoke eloquently about Ali's willingness to actively defy social injustice. After Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the Anthem as a way to symbolically protest the current state of U.S. race-relations, there seems to be a divide throughout the sidelines. This protest and its consequential divide has made its way into high school football, particularly Montgomery County.
When it became clear that the Watkins Mill football team planned to kneel during the anthem, a bit of a controversy ensued. A selection of Damascus supporters vowed to 'boo' if Watkins Mill decided to replicate Kaepernick's protest. To add more complexity to the issue, Damascus and Watkins Mill both differ in terms of demographics. Although Damascus Principal Jennifer Webster requested that the community respect Watkins Mill's right to protest, there were quite a few boo's and U-S-A chants in the crowd before and after the protest. There was a fair amount of fans who were quite "olympic" in terms of their patriotic attire, but for the most part, the fans were focused on enjoying the game. Yet, in the face of the crowd's initial reaction, it should be noted that the players on both sides of the ball played respectfully, and there were no altercations following the protest. Despite this, the situation has potential to cause additional problems in Montgomery County as well as areas around the nation that are experiencing more tension within their communities. Regardless of ones opinion in regards to the protests inspired by Kaepernick, we must garner a more rational outlook towards this situation. If history books are any indication, peaceful protests (and their frequent opposition) is as American as apple pie.
So here are the main arguments: Some believe that kneeling during the anthem is a sign of disrespect, particularly to anyone in uniform (primarily veterans). On the other hand, some view Kaepernick's kneel as an opportunity to peacefully bring awareness and change to issues that have not been fully addressed - especially race-related issues.
When trying to align with a rationalist approach, we need to re-evaluate the belief that kneeling during the anthem is a sign of disrespect to veterans. When considering that the premise and context of Kaepernick's protest had very little to do with the military, it seems like many people fail to truly grasp the message he is communicating. Throughout social media, much of the banter has been focused on nearly equating this protest to treasonous behavior. While veterans should be respected and honored, the anthem represents the entire nation, and from my understanding, Kaepernick believes that there are portions of the nation that should be given more justice. Veterans play a crucial role in this nation, but this country is also represented by civilians who feel that some of their issues are not addressed adequately.
Ironically, during the recent New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals season opener, there were quite a few indications of 'lacking respect' during the anthem. When viewed closely, quite a few coaches, including Bill Belichick, failed to place their right-hand on their heart. In the backdrop, there were quite a few people walking in the stands and even drinking beer. Are these actions against anthem etiquette? Possibly, but this does not make them unpatriotic or wholly disrespectful to veterans. What this example shows is that we tend to hold others to an unrealistic standard. As part of my father's 30 years of military service, I have been to countless Marine and Army parades throughout my life. Even at those events, there have been countless people who were sitting during the passing of the colors (U.S. flag), speaking while the bugle played taps (dedication to fallen soldiers), and speaking on their cell-phones during the anthem. From a visual perspective, how different is Kaepernick's and Watkins Mill's actions from the examples explained above? The only difference is the purpose and context. The purpose of the protest is to bring awareness to an issue, instead of purposely (or obliviously) disrespecting patriotic norms and traditions. Rather than this being a nitpicking discussion, the above examples are intended to show that we need to be more rational when discussing the reasons why some are opposed to the protest, instead of immediately jumping to politically-charged conclusions.
Moving forward, we need to clear a few things up. Although football is purely an American sport, and there has been a strong partnership between the military and the NFL, its relationship is not as patriotic as it may seem. In an investigation led by war-hero/Senator John McCain and Senator Jeff Flake, it was discovered that approximately $53 million dollars was paid by the Department of Defense for patriotic presentations at professional sporting events. Patriotism should neither be forced nor purchased. If we want to respect veterans, then the millions paid to the NFL and other leagues should have been used for important issues such as fixing the VA system or assisting in suicide prevention for veterans. Although the eventually NFL refunded a portion of the money following media pressure, this example sheds light on why we need to view things rationally. It's perfectly fine if you do not agree with Kaepernick's protest, but think twice when we equate this protest to something that resembles negative sentiment to our veterans. Again, many hold Kaepernick and his followers to a standard that is not always met by those who are not participating in this protest.
America has a lot of contentious and fragile issues situated within a complex election year. Despite this, we need to understand the scope of these issues, followed by what we believe America represents. Usually the first words that come to mind are "democracy" and "freedom." Therefore, within a democracy, everyone should have the freedom to peacefully protest. On the other hand, everyone has the right to disagree with Kaepernick's beliefs as well. Regardless of one's viewpoint, it is more important that we encourage peaceful protest instead of antagonize protesters, especially in today's political/social climate. This protest is most likely going to stay for the remainder of the season, so we must remember that Kaepernick, NFL players, and High School athletes are exercising a Constitutional right. The recognition of these rights are far bigger than a Montgomery County football game. Consider ourselves fortunate to have the luxury of witnessing a peaceful protest; because in many countries, protests are not always peaceful - just turn on the news.
We do not have to always agree, but we should listen. After all, we share the same flag, anthem, and nation.