The Culture Wars in America continue as more than 100 NFL players protested by kneeling, sitting, or raising their fists during the national anthem. The display was very clearly motivated in response to remarks made by President Trump in Huntsville, AL (and subsequent tweets), where he expressed his desire that players who disrespect the flag and the anthem should be punished by team owners. Trump’s remarks reignited the debate around the place of politics in sports a year after Colin Kaepernick made a name (but maybe lost a career) for himself by refusing to stand for the anthem.
The recent developments bring together several interesting issues that continue to divide the country including freedom of speech, patriotism, and (the lack of) shared moral/cultural norms.
Let’s start with freedom of speech. Do professional athletes have the right to express political opinions without penalty in their capacity as an employee of a privately-owned league? It seems obvious that they do not. Critics of free speech advocates are quick to point out that there is no right to a platform for one’s speech (see this dreary but ubiquitous xkcd meme). But these critics often fail to notice the extent to which norms of free speech also depend on a culture of free speech wherein people not only have a right to express their views—free from government censorship—but feel comfortable doing so in the social mileu. Arguably, however, this culture of free expression is unsuitable to the business model of professional sports, especially the NFL, which is a league that has branded itself with patriotism. The NFL knows this, of course, which is why Kaepernick remains out of a job (or maybe he’s just a bad QB). But after the recent protests, it seems that the league is also trying to appeal to the smaller percentage of its audience that welcomes the loud rebuke of the President’s actions. How else could we interpret the number of kneelers going from a handful of players one week, to hundreds the next? Indeed, the protests seem politically motivated rather than principled. But unless things have changed considerably since last year, the NFL players are playing right into Trump’s hands and we’ll likely continue to see the protests dwindle.
What about patriotism? Is it disrespectful to the flag and anthem to refuse to stand? Many on the left would revive the old slogan from the Bush years that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” It’s because Kaepernick and others love their country that they feel compelled to protest the injustices that prevent a more perfect union. The sentiment is right. Patriotism should be grounded in love for what makes a country great because such things are worthy of love in the first place, not out of blind obedience. However, by ostensibly protesting symbols that many have sacrificed their lives to defend–symbols we should all be able to stand for–dissent looks a lot more like disrespect. We can agree that dissent is essential to American ideals. But rights come with responsibilities. Using dissent to undermine shared symbols (even if unintended) fails to carry on the tradition of discourse that is made possible by the institutions represented by those symbols.
This form of dissent is not particularly effective either; it just further divides the country over what used to be a venue for nonpolitical escapism. The claim that the show of solidarity was necessary to respond to the divisiveness of Trump’s remarks is also puzzling, given that Kaepernick began this whole ordeal last year, proclaiming that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” While many Americans may appreciate the sentiment, his chosen tactic for expressing the sentiment has only sown more division.
In any case, Trump appears intent on rallying the majority of Americans who still believe in honoring these shared symbols and values. That these values still resonate, even in the din of divisive rhetoric, is nicely illustrated by this video of a Black Lives Matter activist being invited to speak to a group of Trump supporters in Boston. If you listen to the lines cheered by the crowd, it’s clear that there is a baseline, non-ideological form of patriotism that both sides agree on, i.e. things that the flag and anthem represent (e.g. we are all Americans, we can join together to solve social problems, people should be fired for doing their jobs badly, God given rights, etc.). Sports used to be a venue where we could pay tribute to that kind of patriotism, to express gratitude for a country that allows agreeable diversions like sports to flourish. This is what allows us to get on with the showcasing the blend of cooperation and competition that brings enemies, on the field, to shake hands after the game. Sadly, this norm of cooperation—so beautifully modeled in sports—is sorely lacking in our political (and cultural) lives.
If we can’t come together through sports or in brief moments of observing respect for shared national symbols, it is very difficult to see a way out of the political/cultural divisions of this country. We need ways of relating to each other that adopt the friendly relations of shared citizens based on classically American values and moral norms. Comparatively speaking, America remains the greatest (albeit imperfect) country on earth. Those who point out imperfections are right to do so. But America is not made more perfect by refusing to stand for the few remaining symbols that bring its people together. That behavior undermines one of the few nonpolitical diversions that we share.