The flag belongs to all of us. It is strong enough to honor and fortify the soldier who commits a life to protect and promote liberty. It is strong enough to be used as an instrument by which to exercise that liberty. It is strong enough to face confrontation that it is failing to live up to its promise.
San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has taken a stand against police brutality by not standing for the flag. In his own words, he essentially explained that he does not intend to stand for the flag until the country it represents has made efforts to extend the principles the flag symbolizes to all of its citizens.
Despite his explicit support for the military and his disavowal of any intent to the contrary, odious messages to him abound in the sphere of social media. Some callers into and hosts of my beloved sports radio programs offer insight into the anger over the means of expression while barely, if at all, acknowledging the underlying message.
“Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed . . . .” Interpretations of the National Anthem are myriad. Many have likely never really considered its lyrics. We have all seen athletes and fans attempt them as cameras pan sporting events.
While certainly no historian myself, when I read its lyrics in the context of what I know of history, I see the Anthem speaking of the survival of a new government—one that extolled freedom—against an assault by tyranny. The flag was proudly hailed, literally and figuratively, as a symbol of a government that belongs to its citizens. It proved strong enough to survive such attack and stand as a message to the world that the new government and freedom the flag represented would not be brought down.
How we see the flag seems to reflect each of our personal experiences. Many of us grew up standing and pledging allegiance to it when we started our school day and, much like our general lack of insight into the National Anthem, without questioning or understanding the significance of the act. For many, standing for the flag is an act of pride and honor for service and sacrifice for the country. For others, it represents an appreciation of freedom in the abstract. For some, it would seem a betrayal of those whose lives have been unjustly taken without just consequences.
I’ve seen YouTube postings of one-time fans burning Kaepernick’s jersey. Some fellow athletes have berated him. A presidential candidate suggested he find another country. While the flag certainly symbolizes these citizens’ rights to express their animosity, I’m reminded of the vitriol of extremists who acted out when a minister burned their religious text, when a satirist dishonored their prophet, and so on. Surely those who act with such vehemence do not trust the inherent power of the very symbols they revere to sustain themselves.
I listened to one NFL commentator declare, “people don’t want political awareness on game day.” I thought of other political statements that are made on game days that accord with popular views. The NFL respectfully honors members of the military for their service during a month of a 16-week season, with coaches and players donning military-themed attire and hosting men and women in uniform to be recognized on the field. The Chargers honored the military with an extravaganza presentation Thursday night when they faced Kaepernick’s team in their preseason finale.
The majority of fans embrace these events, which are designed to bring political awareness to honor the sacrifices made by those in uniform. So it is not antipathy toward game day political awareness itself that engenders wrath.
Nor is it the act of not standing that causes some to react. Often players are getting wrapped or stretching on the sidelines during the National Anthem. They are not met with vitriol for disrespecting the flag.
It seems to be the substance of the underlying message that compels some to fervently attack the lone sidelines messenger. Yet we would not need a Bill of Rights if freedom was limited to expressing popular views. It is protecting the unpopular view—the view many do not approve of nor want to acknowledge—that breathes life into the word “freedom.”
Another commentator asked his satellite radio audience whether the NFL should “crack down” on Kaepernick and gave reasons why it may not “crack down” on him. “Cracking down” on someone implies the imposition of punishment for breaking a rule. Governments and institutions “crack down” on their members or citizens when they consider them dissidents who threaten their power. Journalists in countries like Egypt and China are “cracked down” on for disseminating information.
Here, Kaepernick’s expression of dissatisfaction only threatens the ability to oversimplify or stand in oblivious darkness amid a lethal reality. No rule has been broken. An exercise of freedom—as uncomfortable as it may be to some, as principled as it may be to others—has been displayed.
One caller who identified himself as an African-American and a veteran indignantly chided Kaepernick three times, “stand your ass up!” The cadence of his declaration made me anticipate he would add, “boy!” at the end of his mandate. In his rancor, I heard, “know your place!” His presumptuous tenor underscored the quarterback’s message. Using professed respect for the flag in an attempt to shut someone up wreaks of irony.
Jealously co-opting the flag as the province of one component of our form of government, although vital and honored, can only weaken its threads. Using the flag to attack Colin Kaepernick in an attempt to silence him on substance is what can rip at the fabric that gives it meaning. His protest employs the flag to shine a light on those who haven’t felt the warmth of its protection. His actions can only reinforce its strength.
Innumerable threads must be sewn to protect and promote freedom. Although the military certainly has a critical role, ordinary citizens do as well. Like athletes who have used their national acclaim to express opinions before him, Kaepernick most certainly wrestled with the personal costs at stake. Ascendancy to eminence gives little cover but provides a stage. Strength is always found more comfortably in numbers. While likely not at the zenith of his career, Kaepernick sublimated his personal interests and solitarily showed the strength of one.
Athletes need not be one-dimensional. Nor does any rule or law require them to forfeit their voices or betray their hearts. Democracy requires that all threads reinforce the flag and the freedom for which it stands.
The flag has been strong enough to weather historical wrongs conducted in its name. It has been strong enough to withstand exploitation to sell everything from cars to linens, and then some.
Its strength is honored by the Olympiad who performs to bring it pride. Its strength is celebrated by fans at the opening of sporting events. And what is otherwise only metaphorical strength is brought to life by an athlete who sits or kneels to advocate for its principles. The flag is strong enough to hold its own.