President Trump, the National Football League and the much of America’s media are engaged in what can best be described as a political barroom brawl – meaning that there is no clear reason for it, no rules of conduct and no apparent good purpose to be served. The air is punctuated with a litany of pejorative and vulgar expressions. Who started it is indeterminable, despite the flurry of accusations. Observers stand on the sideline cheering or jeering those engaged in the fracas. Such brawls eventually end having accomplished nothing.
Much finger pointing is directed at the currently unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for starting it all. In truth, he is only one of a long history of personalities using, or abusing, their platforms to provoke political action and reaction. We have long seen the radical left of Hollywood using professional recognition stages, such as the Academy Awards and Grammys, to make political statements. We can go all the way back to the raised fists at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.
It is no small irony that this controversy should be the legacy of a guy who, by most professional athletic standards, is a pretty decent fellow. He has donated a significant portion of his income to a variety of good causes. He does not have a criminal record. He has not been involved in any sleazy personal scandals. His motivations seem to be sincere. And while there is armchair debate over his skills, he has both the talent and the established record to be playing in the big leagues.
But what is being protested and counter-protested? It would seem that there are three sides that are engaged in conflict with each other even though they may not have any reason to be in conflict at all. That is because they are all championing different and unrelated causes.
The latest round seems to have started when Kaepernick remained seated (later kneeling) for the National Anthem as a protest against a number of highly reported shootings of young black men by white police officers. Some see the protest as much broader — about allegations of pandemic white racism throughout American society. (If you read my column on that subject, you would know that I reject the notion of pandemic racism by the American people.)
Virtually every good American would agree that racism should be protested and eliminated where it exists. So why the controversy? It is because of the form and place of protest. The tactic of using the National Anthem at the beginning of a sports event was a terrible mistake.
First of all, the sports arena is one of the great unifying loci in our republic. At any one time, tens of thousands of people of all backgrounds come together peacefully to enjoy the game – divided only by loyalty to one team or the other. It is entertainment. It is a means of escape from the more serious matters of life.
It is also a workplace where conditions of employment regulate behavior and, yes, limit our freedom of action. I wonder how the left and their media would react if a player held an AK-47 aloft during the Anthem to protest laws limiting the Second Amendment? Never mind. We know how they would react.
Further complicating the workplace issue is the fact that the NFL has rules against the very behavior being exhibited on the field. Kaepernick’s protest is not a constitutional right in the workplace and the owners had the right to fire him, if they so wished. They choose not to enforce those rules as a concession to political correctness.
The second mistake is disrespecting the National Anthem as the means of protest. Since the Anthem represents the totality of America as a people and culture, one cannot effectively use it as an instrument of narrow protest. The Anthem does not represent one faction, one philosophy, one viewpoint or even one problem. The marvel of America is that we are a nation that can RESPECT our national culture of E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), and the many good qualities of our culture, while still dealing with the imperfections and disagreements within our Union. The very ability to do that is what we celebrate in the Anthem, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Anthem also represents all those individuals, from the Revolutionary War to the contemporary sands of the Sahara, who died in defense of our freedom. Their lives resonate with each note of the Star Spangled Banner. It is foolish to believe that one can disrespect the Anthem without degrading their ultimate contribution and offending the loved ones they left behind or those who patriotically appreciate their sacrifice.
Many of the genuflecting protestors claim that their action is not meant to be disrespectful of the Anthem, the service men and women or the nation in general, but merely a tactic to draw attention to the racial issues. In using the Anthem, however, they have inadvertently toxified their protest by making common cause with the true American haters, the anti-capitalists and those who have historically rejected the Anthem as a militarist theme song. They give encouragement to our enemies around the global by seeming to refute our democratic principles and personal freedoms.
Those who are now condemning the athletes’ actions are not defending or endorsing racism. What the protestors claim as the purpose of their actions is not what most Americans see, or what the foreign world sees. Those offended by the disrespect for the Anthem are not opposing the message the athletes believe they are sending out. They are not opposing the fight against racism, but only what seems to be contempt for America.
Then there is President Trump. He sides with most Americans who see the protest as disrespect to the nation in general, and he is more than willing to express his opinion in his characteristic combative and pugnacious style. His reference to the protestors as “sons of bitches” and proposing they be summarily fired needlessly enflames an already combustible situation. It also adds another issue into the brawl. The President, himself.
The reasons of players and now owners have broadened the kneeling has little to do with protesting racism or disrespecting the Anthem. It is a show of contempt for the President’s inflammatory tweets and comments. This was evident in the actions of the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals, who took to the knee as they arrived on the field (protesting Trump) and stood for the National Anthem (siding with the patriots – the offended citizens, not the team) without really making any statement regarding the racial side of the protest. It was a rather clever response that seemed to have an appeal to all sides. However, it did signal that you should not use the Anthem as a vehicle of narrow protest.
Of course, the media had a field day with the controversy. As is too often the case, they were not the chroniclers of the events, but active participants in the brawl. Virtually every report was spun into the preconceived dubious narratives of anti-Trumpism. It was excessive, obsessive and concocted criticism of President Trump – even though some criticism may have been justified and deserved. They just could not restrain themselves from going to the extreme. In twisting every story into a criticism, the anti-Trump press has made itself another pugilist in the NFL barroom brawl.
For all controversy and conflict that has flowed out of Kaepernick’s initial refusal to stand for the National Anthem, what has been achieved? The racial protests of Martin Luther King in the 1960s had a clear and just cause. They had a goal. They were crafted to shed light into the specific dark corners of Democratic Party’s institutional racism — a food counter sit-in, a school boycott, marches into restricted communities and taking a front seat on a bus. His confidence in ending racial inequalities rested on a belief in the goodness of the greater America – not in a need to defame and destroy American Exceptionalism.
Whether it is about racism, patriotism, presidential personality or media bias, this political brawl has achieved nothing positive. Rather than recruiting people to a cause, it has pretty much hardened opinions. It seems to have made detesting racism and loving America incompatible concepts – and that is the unfortunate legacy of the NFL barroom brawl.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.