I firmly believe the United States is the greatest country in the world, but this does not mean it is above criticism. Part of the reason America excels is because citizens are able to critique the country and its representations. The president, Congress, the flag, and yes, the national anthem, are all fair game when it comes to protest.
The president, and many of his supporters, seem to believe that kneeling during the national anthem is unpatriotic–as if exercising our constitutional rights is somehow anti-American. I could not disagree more. Unflinching reverence has never been a pillar of American society. We do not keep quiet out of idolatry or nationalism; in fact, we have fought many wars against governments that tried to impose this very kind of fear.
American ideals and symbols should never be used to stifle freedom of speech and protest, or else it is a complete misunderstanding of their very existence. The American flag is the embodiment of American society, including all its faults and problems. In kneeling during the anthem, or removing themselves from the field altogether like the Steelers and Seahawks, NFL players are simply trying to draw attention to some of these problems. This does not mean they are anti-military, or that they hate America. It means they recognize the deficits in our society, especially racial injustices, and are utilizing their influence and societal platforms to shed light on these issues.
Instead of accepting that racism and other related problems continue to exist in our country, many are more invested in ignoring these problems and labeling protestors unpatriotic. Most commonly, opponents of this style of activism like to claim that it disrespects the military and people who have died for our country. Donald Trump himself has taken part in this, tweeting that “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag—we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” The glaring problem with statements like these is that the flag is not a military symbol. The military uses the flag to the same extent as every government agency, but people tend to disproportionally attribute it to the armed services. That way, it is easier to shame NFL players and other protestors by incorrectly asserting that they hate the troops.
Donald Trump’s tweet raises another problem within this movement. Trump’s ego has pushed him to hijack the issue and make it about himself, a habitual pattern throughout his presidency. Now, people are attributing the national anthem protest to anti-Trump sentiments, clouding the issue altogether. Colin Kaepernick started kneeling last season, before Trump's presidency even started, in order to protest and draw attention to racial issues and police brutality. Regardless of one’s stance on police and race relations, it is undoubtedly a more substantial topic of discussion than Donald Trump’s twitter account, and yet that seems to be the current focus.
Even more disconcerting than Trump's insatiable ego is how disproportionate his response has been to the NFL players compared to his remarks on white supremacists in Charlottesville. As hordes of fascists and white supremacists spread hate and violence throughout a city, Donald Trump was still able to claim that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” Yet when celebrities try to draw attention to racial inequality, he takes time to spit insults on his personal Twitter account, all while in the midst of terrible natural disasters throughout the country. The disrespect and immaturity of these responses are unbecoming of any state's official, let alone our nation's commander-in-chief.
Despite the deplorable actions of the president, the part of this debate that still bothers me most is that whenever a racial issue arises, there never seems to be a “right” way to protest. When people kneel during the anthem, they are deemed unpatriotic. When new organizations like Black Lives Matter are created, the members are called terrorists and black supremacists. Even when legislators try to remove symbols of hate in public places, they are accused of destroying history and tradition. People like to support freedom of speech in the abstract, but there always seems to be a reason why certain modes of activism are wrong and offensive. Apparently, people cannot organize, protest peacefully, or go through the correct legal processes. How then, should people go about confronting the racial injustices in the U.S.?
Of course, I understand why this specific type of protest rubs many people the wrong way. There are so many things that are great in America, and we have people who risk their lives every day to protect it. It may seem that we should just turn a blind eye, out of fear of being ungrateful for what we have. Yet, if we turn our backs on the problems of the country, we are doing ourselves and our nation a disservice. In this sense, we are actually violating what our military men and women have fought to protect. America is not a country that backs down from controversy or prioritizes national pride over progress and freedom of speech. Sometimes it is okay to admit that America is not perfect and to take a knee. America is unwell, and if it takes a little controversy to draw attention to it, I fully support the actions of these patriotic players.