A More Perfect Union: Why Kneeling During The National Anthem Is Textbook Patriotism

“Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country,” President Trump tweeted on Tuesday, adding the hashtag “#StandForOurAnthem.”

Trump reignited a longstanding national debate on acceptable displays of patriotism and protest last Friday when he criticized — nay, blasted — — NFL players who have stood against police brutality and racial injustice by taking a knee on the field during the playing of America’s national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired, he’s fired,’” Trump said to a roaring Huntsville, Alabama crowd.

Tragically, as the U.S. president uses 140-character sound bites to weigh in on a nuanced free speech conversation — a topic which has found itself before the Supreme Court on multiple occasions— he fails to see the true American devotion it takes to stand before a divided nation during a primetime slot and kneel.

To understand why these player protests during the Star-Spangled Banner are so important, you really have to understand the anthem’s origin.

The year is 1814, and the War of 1812 is raging between Britain and a 38-year-old United States. After cutting off trade with Britain in a deal with France, Britain retaliated with a full-fledge Navy effort that included blocking U.S. slave ships, partnering with native tribes seeking to rebel against the U.S., and famously burning down the Capitol, Treasury and President’s house.

Weeks after burning the Capitol, the Battle of Baltimore brought a rain of artillery fire on an American fort for over 24 hours. From aboard a British vessel, 35-year-old Francis Scott Key observed the back and forth until, finally, the sight of the American flag signaled home turf victory.

Over the land of the free and the home of the brave, he saw a U.S. symbol hold steadfast in the face of threatening odds. He went on to write the Star-Spangled Banner, gifting his nation words that would someday serve as America’s most prolific native tune.

I’m a little biased toward the War of 1812. Hell, I LOVE the War of 1812. Young, gritty America had just started to stand on its hind legs when King George III decided he’d had enough with the new nation’s improbable experiment in democracy. Nonetheless, the U.S. fought back. It showed resilience, courage and the ability to stand up to an oppressive force looking to crush the virtues and ideals so put forth in our most foundational documents.

One need look no further than the preamble to the Constitution for guidance on what binds Americans together. Embedded in our national psyche, more than perhaps any other mission, is the heavy undertaking to “form a more perfect union.” This phrase once featured in Lincoln’s inaugural address refrains now as the American identity stands fractured.

It takes one viewing of Remember the Titans to understand how sports can serve as a powerful vehicle for social change. In another Oval Office vs. pro sport matchup, Trump disinvited star NBA point guard Steph Curry and the champion Golden State Warriors from the White House this weekend after Curry himself explained his reasoning for not wanting to attend.

“By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what’s accepted and what we turn a blind eye to,” Curry said. “ I don’t think us not going to the White House will miraculously make everything better. But that’s my opportunity to voice that.”

Tea in Boston Harbor, Berkeley protesters in the 60’s, Crystal Lee Sutton holding her “UNION” sign on a factory table — protesting is in our DNA. But not just in our DNA — it is our DNA. And while Brits may no longer be the poster child of oppression in America, other societal ills plaguing our national existence now require the citizenry’s active attention.

Moving past our scarred history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and other systemic racial structures — the afflictions that most threaten our ideals and principles come masked by a new name: Income inequality, police brutality, mass incarceration, anemically funded public education systems and a court system that fails to serve justice when we need its healing properties most.

Our body politic is hurting, and that’s when we need the anthem and those who fight and die for this country most. But in honoring the national anthem, let’s not lose sight of the American archetypes for which it stands.

A nation kneeling is one humbly recognizing its imperfections and downfalls while also recognizing the wrongs that move us to form a more perfect democracy. One that serves our most vulnerable populations, just as it provides for the fortunate.

If you’ve listened to cable news, talk radio or scrolled through Twitter since last Friday evening — it may seem the proverbial “more perfect union” is unattainable and hopeless. But, as former President Barack Obama once said as a then-candidate in 2008, “In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”

Hope: That’s what we’ve seen in the bodily bends and locked arms of professional athletes choosing to go against the tide and take a stand. In Dolphins player Michael Thomas’ emotional comments about making his daughter proud, in the linked arms of the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, in the messages of solidarity from U.S. veterans young and old, we see hope.

Hope that the scales of justice, despite their disfigured and embattled past, will someday truly balance for every American born to this nation.

The NFL owes this next wave of public protest to Colin Kaepernick’s initial stand last season against a flag for a country that “oppresses black people and people of color.”

“To me, this is bigger than football,” Kaepernick said at the time. “And it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Son of famed St. Paul’s Cathedral architect Christopher Wren placed the Latin phrase “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” at his tombstone when he died, a passage literally translating to “If you seek a monument, look around you.” Meant to encapsulate the leftover remains of a person’s legacy, it couldn’t have been more fitting.

To those looking for signs of allegiance to American ideals we hold dear, look around you. From a 50-yard line perspective, our task of forming a more perfect union may not be well, but it is certainly alive.