For nearly three weeks last fall, the National Football League waged war against President Trump over player protests during the national anthem.
After 19 days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell began a slow-moving public relations train wreck of capitulation, culminating in a new rule announced Wednesday that will allow the league to fine teams for actions taken by players deemed disrespectful during playing of the anthem. Under the policy, it is up to individual teams to decide whether they want to discipline players for protesting during playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The fact that President Trump’s invective against the NFL marked the turning point in the league’s anthem policy is no accident – he was the first leader in America to recognize the potency of the populist-conservative coalition that wrecked both political parties and is now blowing up the blind spots of coastal business decision makers.
The NFL reacted to hard data. Surveys show the league’s favorability cratered among Republicans and political independents as it waffled on the protests launched by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The league’s popularity tumbled among Americans of all education levels except those with post-graduate degrees – threatening to reduce the sports league that once enjoyed the widest appeal to the profile of a social justice organization.
Those on the political left have recoiled at the NFL’s new anthem rule, but this debate’s devolution into crude political tribalism masked the dialogue we should have had: whether all of us, no matter our politics, are committed to the notion that America has not yet achieved its potential.
Many nations’ national anthems are funereal dirges to battles lost or paeans to tribal loyalty. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is neither. Its base meaning is best understood by the circumstances of its composition.
It was an early September evening in 1814 on the Patapsco River in Maryland that inspired our anthem. Britain – the world’s only superpower – chose to unleash all the hell it could muster on an outmanned military outpost squarely amidst a cluster of distant prodigal colonies.
A young poet held captive in the belly of a British ship in Baltimore’s harbor witnessed the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry and likely assumed he might die there.
When Francis Scott Key penned the words that would eventually become the lyrics to our national anthem, the United States was but a generation old – just three decades removed from a hard-won independence that Britain still disputed with gunships in Baltimore and arsonists in Washington.
Key, like most of his countrymen, likely harbored doubts that the novel country born not of tribe but of ideological choice could endure. The experiment in nationhood and democracy was a proposition on the fringes of world experience, with safe money betting on its failure.
So when the poet crawled above deck as the sun rose that September morning, it’s only logical that he would look to the stubborn presence of the national emblem on Fort McHenry’s flagpole as a fitting metaphor for national resilience.
It was not just a flag that Key’s generation would have seen surviving, but a universal belief in our country’s boundless potential. Young nations are optimistic by nature, and fed by the aspirations and ideals of generations who assume theirs won’t be the last or the best.
We are still a young nation today in the context of world history. The question national anthem protesters in the NFL must answer is whether they retain aspirations for the country.
Our national anthem is not a blind loyalty oath to the government of the U.S. – that’s what’s in the Pledge of Allegiance. Instead, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an ode to survival, hope and an expectation that we can persist and become better than we are today.
The protests that began in the NFL and spread to even high school football games involved players taking a knee instead of standing during the anthem’s performance.
“Taking a knee” is not a random gesture for football players; it’s what they do every day in practice when they cease competing and stop to submit to instruction from coaches.
In games, “taking a knee” is what a kickoff returner does when he concludes that leaving the safety of his own end zone is too dangerous. It’s what quarterbacks do when they want to willingly end a play before making physical contact with their attackers. In every instance, the act of taking a knee is a tactical surrender.
Today’s anthem-protesting athletes should ask themselves whether surrender is the visual signal they seek to send, especially when the song sparking their surrender is an affirmation of the aspiration that our nation still has potential to achieve.
The physical stagecraft of protests has always mattered; the action is the speech.
When 1960s civil rights protesters staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters or libraries, they were providing a visual picture of the way things ought to be – blacks and whites sitting together, treated equally.
Labor union strikers form picket line barriers at the gates to the factories they intend to idle. Protesters stage marches on the National Mall in Washington, in eyeshot of those elected to the Congress, mimicking military advances – a metaphorical threat that Members of Congressmen had better heed or be overrun at the ballot box.
Football players who “take a knee” – and in so doing visually signal they are giving up during a song that says America will endure – should consider whether their activity accurately demonstrates their own intentions to improve equality. Unless they believe we can’t get better as a society, they have the wrong metaphor.
Anthem kneelers also must factor the effectiveness of this particular method of protest. Shock value has long been critical to the most urgent political speech – hunger strikes and flag burning fit this category. But the one group of people most likely to experience personal shock from anthem protests is Gold Star parents – mothers and fathers of children who died in military service to our country.
Find a Gold Star mother or father and you will find someone who sees in every performance of the national anthem a reminder of their son or daughter’s funeral – the overlap is universal. These are people who are in every NFL stadium every week, and who watch games on TV.
Every culture has its own ways to honor its dead. In America, our way has always been the thoughtful tribute of a pause, at attention. Cars stop on the highway to allow a hearse to pass. We stand in line to greet grieving relatives at wakes, pausing briefly at the end to say one last goodbye.
Funeral guests stand solemnly when caskets are brought into a room or lowered in the ground. Since the public performance of our national anthem is the way we honor those who have defended our country when they are buried, kneelers could find a different method of protest more appropriate to their aims.
Political protest, in its pure form, is not an end unto itself. It is an attempt to catalyze a change bigger and longer-lasting than the grievance that launched it.
The multimillionaire gladiators of our most watched entertainment spectacle have a tremendous platform for starting societal conversations. They have all reached the pinnacle of their profession because of their ability to make split-second executions that gain strategic advantages over their opponents. They should choose the method, and metaphor, for their political speech with equal strategic guile.