Well, we thought we knew what all the kneeling was about. I mean, we were told it was about their First Amendment right to protest injustice, police violence and the unfairness experienced by some in our country. We were told it’s a quiet display to show solidarity with those who have suffered social inequities. But, whatever it’s intentions, because it was so poorly communicated and carried out in such a confusing and abysmal way, we now realize the choice is either conformity with a trendy movement or to side with patriotism and our flag.
Before you stop reading because of the use of that word “conformity,” I want to point out what happened Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers all stayed inside their locker room during the singing of the National Anthem — all save for one.
Following the game, Coach Mike Tomlin told the press he had hoped to get 100 percent participation in their decision to not be present during the anthem. When pressed about the one player who went outside, his only retort was, “Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation. We were gonna be respectful of our football team.”
Respectful of our football team.
Not the flag. Not the anthem. Not our country.
So, who was that lone player who defied his coach and left his team to go stand on the field? His name is Alejandro Villanueva. Besides being an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he is a Bronze Star recipient for both Valor and Overseas Service for his service during three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. Prior to his service, he was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. And now he plays professional football in the NFL.
This is where my point is made. Coach Tomlin was visibly upset, not because his players chose to stay inside the locker room, but because someone who actually did fight and bleed for his country, chose to stand for the flag and for the National Anthem. It was not about freedom of speech. It was all about conformity, otherwise, why the bitterness? Whatever its initial, altruistic goal, the message has been lost in the cacophony of phony outrage and trendy protestations, more directed at the president of the United States, now, than toward any social ills.
This leads to my second point on this subject. So many bandy about the phrase “freedom of speech” as though it is an impenetrable barrier, allowing a person to say whatever he or she wants without fear of any reprisal. That is not what the First Amendment provides. As written in our Constitution, the right to freedom of speech (and of religion, the press and to assemble, etc.) protects the citizenry from falling under the heavy yoke of an oppressive government. It specifically protects the people from the government. Anyone can speak ill of the government or those in power, and no matter how visceral or mean-spirited (or true) those words, you cannot be incarcerated, fined, jailed or in any way disabused. But, this only relates to how the government can treat its citizens. This does not, in anyway, protect you from the backlash of others who are not in government.
If an employer finds your words in the office to be divisive or demoralizing, you could find yourself without a job. If an entertainer wishes to provoke half of his or her fans with an outlandish statement, it should be no surprise if ticket sales drop. When a news medium prints false narratives or out-right lies on a routine basis, they should not be offended when they see a drop in viewers or readership. There are consequences to actions and, within the free market, the First Amendment does not absolve you from them.
I mentioned in my opening that I feel whatever the message was supposed to be, its execution was dreadful. What message is being sent by protesting the flag or our National Anthem? Regardless of all our differences, aren’t we all one nation under one flag? Isn’t our National Anthem sung in honor of all 320 million Americans who live in our great nation as well as for all those who came and died before? By protesting the flag and the anthem, the message is a protest of America itself. Watch any group around the world that hates America and what do they do? They protest the American flag. They see it as a symbol of hope and light to the world and they cannot stand it. They paint all Americans with the same brush. When we see athletes at the top of their game, showing the same disrespect for our flag, it cannot help but convey a message of disrespect for our nation.
Finally, whether you like him or hate him, I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: President Trump knows how to play the media like a skilled violinist. The sports world, especially the NFL, has become more and more politicized to the point where the sporting event has become secondary to the cause du’jour being promoted, pushed or protested. ESPN and the NFL have lost control of their own message and brand as a result of the constant injection of politics into their broadcasts and games. So, while players are saying they are “taking a stand for those too little to be seen or heard,” Donald Trump has done something similar by taking to Twitter and calling out those players who do not honor the flag or stand for the National Anthem. And the lapdog media, along with players and coaches, who still haven’t learned their lesson, immediately double-downed on their faux indignation and went all-in on their actions this past Sunday. While they were giving each other high-fives for sticking it in Donald Trump’s eye, a large percentage of this country, who believes in patriotism, the flag and our anthem, were encouraged to see their personal beliefs echoed by the President.
And here we are, with a portion of the country siding with the NFL and the protests and another portion siding with the president, who aligns himself with patriotism. With just a few tweets, the president has aligned himself with Old Glory and put the NFL on the opposite side of the debate. No one, myself included, is saying the players cannot protest, but those players should also understand they are not protected by the First Amendment when it comes to their fan base, supporters or even employers. If the league finds themselves continuing to lose market share and ratings, eventually, their desire for financial self-preservation will overrule the political whims of the day.
I just wish they would get back to playing the game and leave the politics for other venues.