Sometimes minor controversies can help throw light on significant issues. The recent kerfuffle over the national anthem at professional football games is a good example. Though it’s easy to forget amid the contrived fury, the country will not stand or fall on whether NFL players stand or take a knee when “The Star Spangled Banner” is played. Yet the controversy has garnered a great deal of attention, involving as it does the symbolism of three great national institutions: the national anthem, the Presidency and the National Football League.
For the benefit of those who may have been either comatose or hiding in a cave the last few weeks, the roots of the controversy stretch back to last season, when a quarterback named Colin Kaepernick (then with the San Francisco 49ers) decided to proclaim his support for the BlackLivesMatter movement (formed in protest against the killing of unarmed African-American suspects by police) by taking a knee instead of standing respectfully during the playing of the national anthem. A few other players followed his lead and brought some attention to the cause he was trying to promote.
When the current football season began, Kaepernick had opted out of the last year of his contract with the 49ers and had not been signed by any other NFL team. There were a few players who continued the anthem protest, but with Kapernick out of football, at least for the time being, the protest was losing steam and seemed likely to fizzle out. (Kapernick has filed a grievance claiming that collusion among the owners effectively blackballed him; whether there is evidence of such collusion remains to be seen.)
Enter President Donald Trump, who never passes up a chance to rile up his “base” at the cost of offending everyone else. Speaking at a rally in Alabama (ironically, a state that has no professional football team), Trump complained that none of the NFL owners were willing to fire players who knelt for the anthem. The predictable result was that the following week, throughout the league, large numbers of players (on some teams, all of them), in some cases joined by the owners, refused to stand for the anthem in solidarity with those teammates that were joining the protest. Trump kept up the pressure the following week even enlisting Vice President Pence to engage in a bit of political theater, attending a game in his home state of Indiana and then dramatically walking out when, as expected, players on the visiting team knelt for the anthem.
Public reaction has been mixed. Most people appear equivocal, believing that the fuss was contrived (which it was). Many are uncomfortable with turning the national anthem — and by extension, the flag — into a symbol of oppression, and some find the players’ choice of protest methods offensive. Outside agitators from the right wing talk radio world have thrown fuel on the fire, as is their custom, since their ratings can only be improved by controversy. Dennis Prager in particular has been at his demagogic best, urging his listeners to boycott NFL games until the owners agree to fire any player who doesn’t stand for the anthem. (I don’t know how many football fans have responded to his call, but I doubt it will have a detectable effect on the league’s revenue.)
The NFL owners presumably would like the whole controversy to go away. It’s a lose-lose issue from their perspective, since anything they do is all but certain to alienate some part of their fan base. They discussed it at a recent owners’ meeting, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s public statements have been carefully crafted to avoid offense and to focus attention on the league’s chartable work in the community, while waiting for the fuss to die down. In the long run — and the NFL historically has been a long-run oriented enterprise — it’s probably a good strategy. Already the controversy has begun to be eclipsed, first by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and then by the brouhaha arising out of the deaths of four American service members in Niger. Given the current occupant of the White House, it’s a pretty safe bet that more controversies will follow.
So where does this leave us? With the help of President Trump’s clumsy intervention, Kaepernick and his supporters have succeeded in their original goal of calling attention to the mistreatment of African-Americans by police. It’s a worthwhile cause, but one whose spokespeople have displayed a recurring tendency to step on their own toes. (Remember, to take one notorious example, the inclusion of a virulently anti-Israel plank in the BlackLivesMatter’s platform?) At this point, to make actual progress on its signature issue, it won’t be enough for BlackLivesMatter to get attention; they will need to garner sympathy and support. If that is the goal, continuing the national anthem protests would be counterproductive.
Lest I be misunderstood, while I am certainly sympathetic to Kapernick’s underlying cause, I strongly disagree with the method that he chose promote that cause. As a Jew, I am grateful to this country for welcoming Jews to these shores as has no other country during the centuries of our exile and for giving us the opportunity to thrive both economically and religiously. I recognize, however, that the historical experience of African-Americans has been more mixed, and their attitude toward our country’s patriotic symbols thus more ambivalent.
For me, the American flag and anthem should be unifying symbols of our country, symbols which all Americans can respect. I am just old enough to remember an era when our country’s flag and anthem were permitted to become sources of controversy rather than unity, and when the very notion of patriotism was widely treated with scorn. It took the tragedy of September 11 to finally bring that era to a close, and I hope never to revisit it.
But one of the most precious principles which has made America the country for which we are grateful is freedom of expression, which means nothing if it does not protect the speech we hate. (The speech we like can take care of itself.) Yes, freedom of speech does not prevent a private employer from restricting employees’ speech in the workplace. The NFL owners could have adopted a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, but they did not choose to do so. You can disagree with that decision, but to pretend that their failure to adopt such a rule demonstrates their lack of patriotism is self-evidently ridiculous.
In any event, President Trump’s intervention has changed the nature of the controversy. A private employer may restrict an employee’s workplace freedom of expression, but for the President of the United States to demand that it do so is to cross into dangerous territory, to threaten the very constitutional principles we seek to protect. Private boycotts — boycotts initiated by individuals who are not public officials using the megaphone created by their official status — may be constitutionally legitimate, but they should be rare. Civic peace depends on the willingness of the vast majority to do business with their fellow citizens without regard to ideological differences. Politically motivated boycotts should be reserved for truly extreme circumstances.
Those who believe that the anthem protests constitute such a circumstance should explain why Prager — or President Trump for that matter — has made no complaint about the fact that, typically, network broadcasts of regular season NFL games do not include the national anthem, which is heard only by the fans in the stadium. If the national anthem is so important that the league’s failure to dismiss players who silently disrespect it justifies a call to boycott NFL games, then surely the millions of fans who watch the games on television should also have the benefit of that experience.
Like, I suspect, many others who are sympathetic with Colin Kaepernick’s cause, I wish he had found a way to promote that cause without public disrespect to what should be the unifying symbols of our country. Even if you believe that his success in attracting national attention to his cause justified the methods he used initially, continuing to use the same methods at this point would be counterproductive. If, however, some players, decide to continue the protests, it would be a mistake for the league to take action against them.
If the demagogues of the right would stop fanning the flames, the NFL could return its attention to football, and President Trump to the myriad crises, gaffes and provocations that have so far constituted the story of his presidency. Then the rest of us could stop fighting a purely symbolic conflict and instead focus on the issues that could better the lives of our fellow citizens.