Why this vet believes Americans need to continue to turn away from the NFL
As a veteran, I’ve always found Colin Kaepernick’s disrespect of the flag at NFL games to be insulting to all Americans, and especially to those who’ve served in uniform in the military (and in the police.) Too many troops and police officers who wore that flag have paid too great a price for me to stomach what I consider to be Kaepernick’s disrespect of their sacrifice.
There are plenty of ways to legitimately protest without denigrating something held so dear by people who have nothing to do with the racial injustice Kaepernick claims he is protesting. Still, whatever you may think of Kaepernick’s conduct, I believe that what the NFL players did in the United Kingdom yesterday was actually worse. Not only did it show their lack of patriotism, it also illustrated the players’ startling intellectual shallowness and their grotesque lack of situational awareness.
Here’s what happened: in a ceremony in London’s Wembley stadium shortly before kickoff, the NFL players respectfully stood for “God Save the Queen” (Britain’s “national anthem”), but knelt during the U.S.’s Star-spangled Banner, an act which dishonored America on foreign soil. Supposedly they were protesting the ill-treatment of African-Americans in the U.S., but if they had bothered to get the facts, perhaps they would not exalt Britain over the U.S. on that count. The players embarrassed themselves with their ignorance.
Why? Britain played a truly horrific role in the African slave trade, which was the genesis of the racial prejudice we suffer in the U.S. today. How much of a role did the British have? The Abolition Project reports that the first British slave ship was captained by John Hawkins in 1562. It also says that in the “245 years between Hawkins’ first voyage and the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, merchants in Britain dispatched about 10,000 voyages to Africa for slaves, with merchants in other parts of the British Empire perhaps fitting out a further 1,150 voyages.” Britain’s own National Archives estimates that “Britain transported 3.1 million Africans (of whom 2.7 million arrived) to the British colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America and to other countries.”
What about racism today? In a recent survey the U.S. was rated the 12th least racist nation in the world (Argentina was #1). Where was Britain? It didn’t even make the list of the 25 least racist countries (China, among others, beat them). And that’s not all. Earlier this year, a British race relations campaigner alleged that in Britain:
Black people are disproportionately charged for offences; we are disproportionately refused bail; we are disproportionately found guilty and disproportionately sentenced,” he said. “We have got massive disproportionality right throughout the system, of which Tasering is just one aspect.
Moreover, last July a housing activist writing Britain’s Guardian newspaper charged that minorities were “bearing the brunt of seven years of rising homelessness” and that “[i]nstitutional racism has played a continuing role in perpetuating racial discrimination and disadvantage in housing.” Additionally, this month the British Broadcasting Company reported a study by a trade union organization that found that “more than a third of black or minority ethnic workers (BME) have been subject to racism at work.”
That’s the relevant history of the country the NFL players chose to honor over America.
To be clear, Britain is a fantastic U.S. ally and I’m personally something of an Anglophile, but it’s important to know that Britain’s history regarding race is certainly no better than that of the U.S., and arguably much worse. To suggest otherwise, as the NFL players did in London, is disingenuous and wrong.
Unquestionably, everyone ought to oppose racism as well as mistreatment by the police. It is, however, ironic that, according to statistics in a just-published article in the National Review, police violence against black men in the United States is actually rare – data which directly contradicts the story Kaepernick and the NFL players are telling.
Furthermore, I can’t forget that the America the players chose to mock currently has – today – thousands of young troops in harms’ way doing what only a few of these grown men making millions playing a mere game had the courage or patriotism to do: defend our country against terrorists and others who would do us terrible harm.
Of the thousands of NFL players since 9/11, only about seven have served in the military (including Pat Tillman, who was killed over a decade ago in Afghanistan). The Army Times reports that one of those vets, former Army Ranger and West Point grad Alejandro Villanueva, stood for the national anthem with his hand over his heart. ESPN says that in the past “Villanueva has said he aligned with player frustration over racial injustice, but the sacrifice of the military is too great to minimize the anthem.” He’s right. The sacrifice of the young men and women who’ve faced opponents on the battlefield instead of just a ballfield is enough to stand in respect of our nation and its ideals.
Hockey coach John Tortorella holds an important perspective, that protest is commendable, but should not disrespect the flag, the national anthem, or the nation as a whole, particularly when there are troops in the field. In 2016 he said:
“When there are men and women that give their lives for their flag, for their anthem, have given their lives, continue to put themselves on the line with our services for our flag, for our anthem, families that have been disrupted, traumatic physical injuries, traumatic mental injuries for these people that give us the opportunity to do the things we want to do,” Tortorella said. “There’s no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you’re trying to make a point.”
Consider as well what Teri Johnson, a Gold Star mother who lost her son in Afghanistan, told CNN last year about Kaepernick’s stunt:
“I am sitting in my living room looking outside at my American Flag — flying at half staff. You see, my son’s body lay in a street after an IED blew up the vehicle he was fighting in. His blood stains the sands of Afghanistan. He died protecting the ideals of the flag you refuse to respect.”
When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her what she would say to mothers whose “sons were innocently and wrongly killed by law enforcement” she replied that she would say:
“Yes, you have the right to sit down. Sitting down is something that is easy to do. But standing up and stepping forward is something that’s hard to do. And what I would like to see, if you really see oppression when you look at the flag, then make it your mission to be proud of it. Do something. Make a difference, so that when you look at that flag, you show pride and you feel hope and possibilities.
That’s a Gold Star mother with real insight…and courage.
Of course, I realize that some veterans disagree with me about the player protests, but I believe that many are misled by those media provocateurs who want to sell the idea that Kaepernick and the others are merely exercising First Amendment rights.
Actually, Kaepernick – along with all other NFL players – can only do on the field what the NFL permits them to do. The First Amendment stops the government from restricting speech, not the NFL. Of course, Kaepernick is well aware of this: in 2014 he got fined for breaking NFL rules by wearing headphones of a company he was representing, but which was not the NFL’s pick.
The NFL, being what they are, allows the disrespect of America, but they would not permit the Dallas Cowboys to wear a decal on their helmets honoring five police officers killed by a sniper in 2016. CBS writer Will Brinson observed in August of that year that:
It’s pretty easy to get upset about the NFL over this. The league has a long history of appearing tone deaf when it comes to letting players and teams support various causes. Brandon Marshall, then with the Bears, was fined more than $10,000 for wearing green shoes to raise awareness for mental-health issues. Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams wanted to wear pink all season long to honor his mother, who died of breast cancer. The NFL told him no.
So, pretty clearly, there is not a First Amendment right involved here. What is also clear is that the NFL has a double standard.
While the NFL bars acts honoring police officers killed on duty, it didn’t do anything when Kaepernick wore his cops-as-pigs socks to a NFL training camp. Disrespect is bad enough, but dehumanizing an entire group is dangerous. David Livingstone Smith, the co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, told NPR in 2011 that dehumanization “opens the door for cruelty and genocide.” Smith explains how this happens:
“When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures,” says Smith. Only then can the process “liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.”
Indeed, dehumanization is what some researchers say puts young black men at risk in confrontations with police. The researchers state that dehumanization “is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude.” Since dehumanization is exactly what cops-as-pigs caricatures aim to do, it is the last thing that ought to be promoted by Kaepernick or anyone else.
Thinking more broadly, the truth is that the NFL is clearly a troubled organization. Consider the stunningly scandalous rate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among former NFL players. Last March the Washington Post reported on another health matter that’s at the core of a lawsuit filed by former players:
[The lawsuit alleged that the] National Football League teams violated federal laws governing prescription drugs, disregarded guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration on how to store, track, transport and distribute controlled substances, and plied their players with powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories each season, according to sealed court documents contained in a federal lawsuit filed by former players.
Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote a scathing piece about the NFL and its health policies and other matters. Here’s an excerpt:
The NFL always wants public benefits, but it never wants to take public responsibility. It wants antitrust exemptions, and nonprofit status for its Park Avenue offices, and tax breaks, and bond issues and financing. But then it wants to claim it’s a private business. It doesn’t want the public to know how it really operates, or to answer to the public at all.
The players? In 2015 AOL News reported on 27 active NFL players who had multiple arrests. Last May, Yale Law professor Stephen Carter wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune (“The NFL has a serious violence problem”) where he explores how allegations of sexual assault and other violence by players is causing the “league’s public image [to take] a hit.” USA Today maintains an online NFL Player Arrests database of those who’ve been arrested since the year 2000. As of September 25th, it had 869 records.
The only good news about all this is that Americans are increasingly turning away from the NFL. Ratings were down in 2016, and even CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus admitted that an internal study showed that Colin Kaepernick’s protests were a factor in the decline. Apologists claimed that the elections, not Kaepernick, were most responsible for the drop, but just last week CNN reported that the NFL’s ratings were still falling.
Will more fans become ex-fans of the NFL? I really don’t know, but I won’t be watching and I hope others join me. An organization that countenances denigrating the flag, the national anthem, and those who serve in uniform has nothing for me. Pro football – at least as the NFL manages it – is just not something I believe we ought to be watching. Time to turn away.
Updates (26 September):
The Washington Times has an update on picture of Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva standing alone with his hand on his heart (see above) that became a social media sensation (and led to his jersey being the top seller on the teams’ website).
While Villanueva did intend to salute the flag, he did not mean to be out on the field by himself, but rather had merely moved to get a better view. He says that the picture embarrasses him because it makes “everybody thinks the team and the Steelers are not behind me and that is absolutely wrong. It’s quite the opposite.”
Apparently the Steelers had decided that whatever they would do about the controversy, they would do as a team. However, when they “couldn’t reach a consensus, they opted to remove themselves from the situation by staying off the field until after the anthem was played.” They were supposed to wait in the tunnel until after the anthem played, but the Times says:
Villanueva said he arrived early and walked out far enough to see the flag. He asked a security guard when the anthem would start and was told “20 seconds.” He turned back toward his teammates in the tunnel when the music began playing.
So Villanueva did what he’s done his entire life: he stopped and put his right hand over his heart even as his mind raced.
Villanueva insists he was caught in a conundrum and that “The entire team would have been out there with me, even the ones that wanted to take a knee would have been there with me had they known these extremely (difficult) circumstances.” He says he “never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with” and that he “just thought there would be some middle ground where I could stand in the tunnel, nobody would see me.”
The Times reports that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger “said the entire team will take the field on Sunday when Pittsburgh plays in Baltimore, though it’s uncertain whether they will present a unified front or have some players protest in some form.” As to his personal views, Roethlisberger told USA Today that: “I personally don’t believe the Anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest. For me, and many others on my team and around the league, it is a tribute to those who commit to serve and protect our country, current and past, especially the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.”
For those Duke football fans who might be interested, Gerald Harrison, the University’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics/Internal Affair, advises:
Duke Football has not been on the field for pregame activities such as the national anthem, alma mater, etc. since Coach Cutcliffe arrived in 2008. Neither Dr. White, Coach Cutcliffe or myself were here prior to the 2008 season and cannot speak for any seasons prior. The decision not to be on the field during the national anthem is not due to any form of protest by our coaches, staff and or student-athletes, it is largely due to timing and final pregame preparations.
The Wall Street Journal has written a thoughtful editorial (“The Politicization of Everything”) that I think is well worth a read. It points out that “Americans don’t begrudge athletes their free-speech rights—see the popularity of Charles Barkley —but disrespecting the national anthem puts partisanship above a symbol of nationhood that thousands have died for.” It also criticizes President Trump’s handling of the issue.
Here’s what I believe may be the most important passage:
American democracy was healthier when politics at the ballpark was limited to fans booing politicians who threw out the first ball—almost as a bipartisan obligation. This showed a healthy skepticism toward the political class. But now the players want to be politicians and use their fame to lecture other Americans, the parsons of the press corps want to make them moral spokesmen, and the President wants to run against the players.
The losers are the millions of Americans who would rather cheer for their teams on Sunday as a respite from work and the other divisions of American life.
As we like to say on Lawfire get the facts and you decide!