Over the course of the last few weeks, the controversy surrounding NFL players performing various forms of protest during the national anthem has intensified. As a veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, I am particularly troubled by the narrative, that these protests are somehow disrespectful to the men and women who have served and died in defense of this nation, that has emerged in the national discussion.
One of the common arguments made by those who oppose the players protesting is, “The only reason these guys have the freedom to take a knee is because of the men and women who have died to give them that right.” I wholeheartedly agree with this argument. Over the course of our nation’s history, countless men and women have fought and died to defend the freedoms established by the constitution, including the right to peacefully protest. However, I disagree with the premise that by exercising their constitutional rights, the players are disrespecting those who have fought to protect those rights. I believe that the players are honoring the sacrifices made by our veterans by practicing the rights to protest and to freedom of speech, in order to further social equality. In taking a knee during the National Anthem, players are, in fact, recognizing and bowing to a vital symbol of our nationhood and citizenship. They are calling attention to the deeper values and principles that the flag and our Anthem represent. They are asking that America BE America for all its people.
I also believe that intentions matter. Not a single player has stated that their intention is to disrespect veterans or their family members but to shine a light on police brutality and social inequality that many people of color face in this country. In fact, players such as Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker and New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who both participated in recent protests have also shown their support for our military by participating in USO tours visiting troops stationed in combat zones throughout the Middle East.
The NFL players participating in these protests have a legitimate grievance. There is no intellectually honest way to deny that people of color have been consistently subjugated and oppressed throughout our nation’s history. Many victims of this subjugation and oppression were veterans themselves, who were denied their basic rights even after serving their country in combat. For example, African American soldiers in WWII were segregated into all black units and were forced to ride different buses and eat in different chow halls than their fellow white service men. Upon their return home, they were denied access to the G.I. Bill and VA home loans and were further subjected by segregation and Jim Crow laws. During the 1960’s, many African Americans who had been forced to go to segregated schools and drink from separate water fountains as whites, were drafted to serve their nation in Vietnam.
Increasingly, we have become divided into camps that support the right to protest and freedom of speech only when we agree with those protesting or the speech being used. I found the protests last month, in Charlottesville, by white supremacists carrying Nazi and Confederate flags to be abhorrent. Others hold the same view when they see an NFL player taking a knee during the national anthem. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if any of us hold the view that either of these protests are offensive. The founders of our nation did not write the first amendment to the constitution to protect speech that was broadly accepted. The point was to specifically protect speech that may be seen by some or many as controversial or offensive.
The controversy reached a new high last weekend as President Trump weighed in on the matter, at a campaign rally in Alabama, where he stated that NFL owners should fire players who kneel or sit in protest of the anthem and referred to the protesters as sons of bitches.
The question we each must answer for ourselves is what do we find more disrespectful, individuals exercising their rights or individuals attempting to silence them and prevent them from exercising those rights? As a veteran, I find it much more offensive for a sitting president to degrade protestors and call on private companies to fire employees for exercising their constitutionally protected rights than watching people peacefully exercising these rights. To paraphrase WWII Navy veteran and 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy: Those who make peaceful protest impossible will make violent protest inevitable.
Post-9/11 Program Director, Veterans Breakfast Club