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Why the Anthem Controversy is a Good Thing

by Sheilla Dingus

September 14, 2016

When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained on the bench for the national anthem a few weeks ago, he unleashed a firestorm as fierce as “rocket’s red glare,” simultaneously setting off a debate as loud as “bombs bursting in air,” to borrow a few lyrics.  And I believe this is a good thing.  Whether or not you agree with his methodology or ideology, Mr. Kaepernick, has shaken a lot of folks out of their comfort zones, and for this I applaud him.  Sometimes we need to be shaken.
Lest you call me unpatriotic and stop reading, let me quickly state that I come from a military family.  My father was a career Air Force man.  My mother, along with her brothers and sisters served their country during World War II; my mother being sworn in on her 18th birthday.  After being released from the Navy at the end of the war and spending some time in civilian life, she enlisted in the Air Force where she met my dad, and then forfeited her own career as to avoid conflicting duty locales after their marriage.  As we moved with my father’s assignments, which placed this only child in a new school nearly every year, I witnessed my mother tear down and reassemble a home in military housing time and time again. I attended funerals of friends’ fathers who sacrificed all in the line of duty, and lived in dread that my own father might be next.  I was taught that personal sacrifice is part of the deal when you value the rights embodied in our Constitution and that they are unconditionally worth fighting for. I was raised to respect the flag and all it stands for.  I learned first-hand at an early age that freedom definitely isn’t free.
Somewhere along the line I believe that many of us, caught up in traditionalism, have forgotten exactly what it is that we uphold. We’ve given lip-service to this notion of freedom and sacrifice, certainly and I believe for most, it holds a special, if not sacred place in our hearts.  But – heaven forbid if we esteem a piece of cloth, beautiful as it may be, over the ideals people have fought and died to achieve and protect.  Apparently many veterans agree.  Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who has joined Kaepernick in the protest told Pro Football Talk that while he’s received his share of opposing and supporting comments on social media, veterans have been among his strongest supporters.
“It’s the veterans who have reached out and said, that’s what they fought for, that’s what they sacrificed their lives for, to give people back home under the flag, under this country, the opportunity to stand up or sit for what they believe in. That was very heartening for me to hear that and that response from the veterans.”
Many sacrifices have been made by soldiers and civilians alike in the noble quest of “liberty and justice for all.”  Much has been accomplished but we’re not quite there yet.  More sacrifice on and off the battlefield will be demanded before this dream becomes a reality for all our citizens.  Laws may be in place, but it’s up to society to make them work.
When we become too comfortable with the way things are, change is stymied.  Like the ancient Romans, perhaps we’ve accustomed ourselves to “bread and circuses.”   Like our predecessors, prior to the decline and fall of their civilization, could it be that we too, have devolved into a population overly obsessed with entertainment, sadly and selfishly at the cost of civic responsibility?  Think not?  This attitude is perfectly exemplified in Jim Geraghty’s National Review article, “I Just Want to Enjoy Watching the Game.”  Here are a few tidbits:
“Nobody watches sports because they want to raise their level of “social awareness.” Nobody tunes in to Monday Night Consciousness-Raising. Most sports fans are perfectly aware of the world’s problems. . . Sports is escapism. It is nothing like the rest of life. . . I don’t want to ‘stay woke.’ I want to take a nap from the troubles of the world.”
This “my entertainment takes precedence over your problems” attitude is very troubling to me.  And from what I’ve observed through social media, Geraghty isn’t alone in this thought process.  I enjoy sports.  Like Geraghty, I appreciate the competitiveness and the unpredictability of sporting events and I applaud the many positive attributes embraced through sport such as teamwork, leadership and determination.  Let’s not make a mockery of these ideals at the cost of the personhood of the athletes who exemplify them.
More from Geraghty:
“It would be nice to think that rooting for a person of a different skin color, and erupting in joy as he makes the difficult throw or the miraculous catch, would purge any hate or discriminatory instincts from the human mind.”
I agree it would be nice, but apparently it hasn’t.  The fact that he felt this needed to be pointed out only reinforces the point I’m trying to make.  We’re not there yet.
“When I tune in, I want to hear about whether the Redskins are any good, not whether the team name offends the announcer. I want to hear whether the quarterback is more effective in a shotgun formation, not whether Bob Costas thinks we need stricter gun-control laws. I want to hear about the holes in the offensive line, not President Obama’s unenforced “red line” in Syria.”
“Shut up and entertain me.  I really don’t care who you are or what you think.”  Is that really how we wish to characterize ourselves as a people?  It’s a thought-provoking and perhaps troubling question, but one that needed to be asked.  Thank you Colin Kaepernick for finding a way to make us take a look at some of the things we’d prefer to shy away from.
Kaepernick has made a lot of people uncomfortable, and for this I applaud him. While some 49ers fans have taken to burning his jerseys, others have swarmed to buy them in support.  According to the New York Post and Seattle Times, Kaepernick’s jersey sales have soared, bringing the back-up quarterback’s $99 jersey from the 20th ranked spot on the 49ers site to the number one position, and the number five position at the NFL Store.  He’s forced the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, to make at least a feeble statement on the matter.  He’s prompted an NFLPA response.  He’s caused numerous athletes to consider their own positions and responses on the matter, and has even caught the attention of the President of the United States, who praised his “active citizenry.”  I think you woke a few people up.  Thank you, Mr. Kaepernick.
In the aftermath of his decision to protest, Mr. Kaepernick has respectfully engaged in conversation with those who see his actions as anti-patriotic or anti-military:
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
One of the most empowering pieces I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks comes from Mike Florio via Pro Football Talk.  In it he asks if Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down is “the moment Superman first realized he can fly?”  He explains his reasoning:  “This isn’t about standing, sitting, or kneeling for the anthem. This is about understanding that players have real power, even if a Lex Luthor league never wants them to figure it out it.”
Some people, immersed in escapism claim that sporting events are not a proper venue for social change.  I beg to disagree.  As Julie DiCaro ably points out in the Cauldron:
“From the beginning, sports have been a means for Americans to work through our most uncomfortable social issues. Baseball was integrated before America was integrated. Muhammad Ali brought the protest of the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms. Even now, our country is having a national debate about violence against women, police brutality and racial inequality because of the actions of professional athletes.”
Like it or not, recent sports controversies have impacted their way onto our televisions, computers, tablets and smart phones and driven conversation at offices, dinner tables and sports bars.  Athletes have a voice and so do we.    Together, our voices can send a clear message to the leagues (and nation) about what is acceptable.  What would happen if a united fan base worked together in a concerted effort to boycott a Sunday’s worth of football in order to send the league a message?  Stadiums empty, televisions off.  I think that would get someone’s attention in a hurry, especially if done in conjunction with an organized player protest.  As Florio said, “Superman can fly.”  The questions that remain are will he?  How far will he go, and in what direction?
As the first week of regular season football came and went, dozens of players joined the protest.  Most have expressed feelings of patriotism coupled with a desire to use their platform as professional football players to bring attention to society’s shortcomings.  Martellus Bennett, who raised his fist at the end of the national anthem prior to Sunday Night Football on 9/11 expressed it this way, “We love this country but it doesn’t mean we can’t improve it.”
If Colin Kaepernick had not taken a dramatic stance, it is doubtful that many would have paid attention to his words.  (He’s been speaking out for a while and no one seemed to notice or care previously.)  I feel it’s telling that he had to go this route to sound a wake-up call that an apparently desensitized public would actually hear.  I applaud the other athletes who are following Kaepernick’s lead and are starting to speak up about issues that matter.  I’m glad they rattled enough cages to cause the public to listen and then join the discussion.  It’s now up to all of us to keep the dialog flowing.
I return to where I began: “Oh say can you see?”  Hopefully a few heads have emerged from the sand and opened their eyes.  And for this, I thank you, Colin Kaepernick.