By Dan Johnson
Recently the debate about whether athletes should be allowed to take a knee during the National Anthem has once again reared its ugly head after New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees was asked what he thought about players kneeling and responded by saying, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” Following this laudable statement, Brees received significant pushback from his teammates and other professional athletes, and issued an apology saying his comments “completely missed the mark.”
One athlete who came out against Drew Brees was LA Laker’s player LeBron James, who Tweeted, “WOW MAN!! ?????. Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You literally still don’t understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those[.]”
I don’t believe this conversation isn’t about the flag for a second. If it weren’t, players would not have felt it necessary to kneel in front of our flag during our National Anthem. Indeed, Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who started the kneeling movement stated,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …
This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
Any person who says this isn’t about the flag is misrepresenting the facts. These protesters started kneeling during the National Anthem because they see our flag as a symbol of oppression.
And on the one hand, those who view our flag as oppressive have a point because our country has many flaws and it has committed many horrific acts, some of which still plague us to this day. We ran the Native Americans off their land. Our economy prospered from the backbreaking work performed by human beings we considered personal property.
Even in the 20th Century we forced into internment camps those who thought might be loyal to another country because of the color of their skin. The idea that “all men are created equal” originally only meant all white, landowning men: women, African Americans, and poor people were not considered to have an opinion worthy of being heard. We have a history of oppressing those outside the power clique.
However, for all our country’s flaws and mistakes, there are many more desirable attributes that we possess. We have fought not only for our own, but for other countries’ freedom on multiple fronts overseas. Few countries allow an individual to raise his or her status simply by hard work, rather than by station assigned at birth.
Our nation’s spirit of ingenuity has brought the world the personal computer, the MRI, and microwave popcorn. We were the first in flight, and we were the first country on the moon. The United States is the country people desperately seek to reach in order to have a better way of life as shown by the multiple waves of immigration from all corners of the globe during the course of our nation’s history.
And perhaps most importantly, despite our flaws, we are truly committed to the notion of “liberty and justice for all,” as shown by updating our laws as necessary, such as when we expanded the electorate with the 15th and 19th Amendments, or when we expanded and protected the rights of minorities with various Civil Rights Acts and through Supreme Court decisions, such as Brown v. Board of Education.
One of the marks of character is humility and the ability to apologize and own one’s faults, and the United States’ government has issued apologies in the past for overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii, interning Japanese Americans during WWII, conducting the Tuskegee Experiment, forcing the Cherokee onto the Trail of Tears, and using slavery and Jim Crow laws. Few countries are willing to own up to their flaws to try and correct them in the quest to form a more perfect union, and certainly an authoritarian, oppressive regime, as those who kneel believe our country to be, would never humble itself to apologize, nor would it allow public assemblies that voice criticism of its government.
People who kneel are committed to racial equality, but they assume that those who don’t kneel during the National Anthem, or those who condemn kneeling during the National Anthem, do not share their goal, which could not be farther from the truth. Both camps share the common goal of rectifying wrongs, ending discrimination, and creating a more unified country. We do not agree on the method being used to foster our common goal of ending racism, and furthermore, those of us who see kneeling before the flag as disrespectful reject the notion that because we do not condone certain behavior we are racist or do not care about what is happening.
Charles Barkley, a former NBA player turned sports commentator, came out and publicly disagreed with Brees’ statements against kneeling, while simultaneously saying he thought Brees was a good person and that the negative social media attention was overkill. “Drew’s original statement, I thought, was insensitive. It was very insensitive, especially during this time. But I thought the negative reaction from every talking head on television and some of his teammates was overkill. I never heard a bad word about Drew Brees in my life. He made a mistake. But we’ve gotten to the point in society where everybody on social media thinks they are God, judge and jury. Drew Brees made a mistake.”
The citizens of our country need to be able to freely express their opinions, and we need to be able to disagree without fighting and belittling each other, which only further fractures us and prevents positive change.
Contrary to what many may believe, standing for the flag is not just customary, it is the law. 36 U.S.C. § 301 National anthem states,
(a) Designation. —
The composition consisting of the words and music known as the
Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.
(b) Conduct During Playing. — During a rendition of the national anthem—
(1) when the flag is displayed—
(A) individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the
anthem and maintain that position until the last note;
(B) members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in
uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in
Those who support kneeling during the National Anthem believe it is a form of nonviolent social protest and therefore is protected speech under the First Amendment. In many ways, this is correct, and for the record while I don’t agree with kneeling before the flag, I do respect someone’s right to freedom of speech. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated about his decision in 1989’s Texas v. Johnson that made flag burning protected speech,
Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.
The fundamental difference here is that these protections concern an individual’s right to freedom of speech outside of the workplace, i.e., while not on the job. The National Labor Relations Act allows employers to limit political speech at work if the speech does not relate to labor or working conditions.
Pickering v. Board of Education and Connick v. Meyers helped establish this standard and form the test that the Supreme Court uses when determining other workplace related speech issues. As kneeling before the flag is about improving society as a whole, not the working conditions for NFL players, the NFL players’ kneeling meets the criterion that would allow team owners, or the entire National Football League, to restrict players from kneeling before the flag during the National Anthem.
Previously, the NFL created a policy that required all players and personnel on the field to stand for the National Anthem, but this was put on hold after only two months due to push back from the NFL Player’s Association. I hope the league will bring such a policy back.
Most of the current push for social change, I doubt, is a result of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling movement. Kaepernick’s kneeling really had only the result of creating a dialogue specifically about the appropriateness of kneeling before the flag that increased the divisions in society.
I believe the current push for change is a result of society examining itself and saying enough is enough following George Floyd’s death. Fully 74 percent of Americans see George Floyd’s death as a sign of a broader problem, not an isolated incident. I also believe the majority of Americans who see this as a problem want to see change, but they do not support rioting and pandemonium that has caused horrific damage – physically, emotionally, and economically – in black communities.
Kneeling for the flag dishonors our nation’s veterans, including all members of historically marginalized groups who put their lives at risk for our nation and its freedoms, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers, or the women in WAC and WAVES.
Tim Tebow gained much positive attention for kneeling to pray; he just did it before the National Anthem was played. Protesters have also historically stood for anthems while holding their fists up in the air, which brought attention to a cause without causing insult. Social protest can be done without insulting our flag to bring attention to the issue of systemic racism, and when done in a less divisive way, I believe that change will be more lasting and effective as people across all walks of life would be on board, not just one segment of society.
After he and President Trump began to go at each other on Twitter following Brees’ apology, Brees wrote, “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, (and) prison reform.”
As someone who both supports racial reconciliation and ending discrimination, while simultaneously condemning anyone including professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, I could not agree more. I hope that we can fight to end racism without kneeling for the flag. What our country needs now is unity, not more division.
Dan Johnson is the current Young Republican Representative to the Sixth District GOP Committee and has been active in GOP politics since college. He holds an MFA in creative writing, and taught secondary English for more than five years. He lives in Roanoke.