KNEES, FLAGS & THE AMERICAN WAY

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” — David Foster Wallace

At the end of the duty-day at US Air Force bases around the globe, there occurs something called “Retreat” where members of the military engage in a ceremony to take down the flag for the evening (it is repeated at 7:30 each morning as well). It’s a varied event ranging from the inclusion of a parade and live marching band to a small gathering with recorded music. What’s not varied however, are the reasons for the ceremony: “For paying respect to the American flag and to signal the end of the duty-day.”

“Our military fights for our country’s freedom, that’s the reason we’re all eating chicken and drinking beer (at the Miami Hurricanes pre-game tailgate). It’s because we live in a free country. Some guy used to play in the NFL, and is not in the NFL, I don’t care. If someone sat next to me and didn’t rise for the anthem, I would grab them by the shoulder and pick them up, that’s what I would do,” says Tom Huss, who is in town from Ohio for the showdown between his beloved Toledo Rocket and the at-home Hurricanes.

Tom, (who feels so adamantly about his position and that everyone know it that he spells his name five times so that it’s correct for this article), explains that while he never served, he has three sons in the Air Force, and he works at an air base. As the person who referenced the Retreat Ceremony and the importance of always respecting the flag and anthem, when asked if he stands in his living room when the anthem comes on his TV, he replies rather strangely, “I don’t stand because I don’t hear it. If I heard it I would stand.”

So Tom is aware there’s an anthem that is played before each game, an anthem that he takes very seriously, because of his love of the military, he says, but he doesn’t hear it because he’s in the kitchen making a sandwich or going to the bathroom or standing in a parking lot drinking beer. Not sure if ignoring the anthem that you know is playing is less egregious than taking a knee while observing the anthem, but Tom is adamant and he frankly doesn’t care.

“I don’t care about LeBron (unlike most of the rest of the state of Ohio who would likely vote James into any office he wanted), or those other guys like Curry. Our military deserves respect.”

“Just because you disagree with my views doesn’t mean you get to tell me how you want me to express my views. Look at Charlottesville. I never ran around saying the Nazi’s or White Supremacists were disrespecting our flag.”

Dan Carpenter, a Queens, New York transplant and a Hurricanes season-ticket holder, agrees that the execution of the protests may be wrong-headed but he sees kneeling in a very different framework.

“I don’t think that kneeling down is necessarily disrespectful, but it is making a statement, so I am much more forgiving of someone making a statement than I am of someone who just sits there slumped in their chair with their hat on and arms crossed,” he explains. “They’re still paying their respects and homage. I’m not a strong Catholic but kneeling is intuitive and integral to religion. Kneeling is a sign of submission,” he points out.

As an 18-year veteran of the sports marketing industry Dan has been to a lot of games, and says, “What I would not like to see is some entity saying ‘everyone needs to do it this way.’ The NFL players are petitioning for protest. I think that’s a good move. No one wants to get in trouble or be disrespectful. Let’s have a month when we can do that when it doesn’t create an issue for everyone.”

It has been pointed out, and not one person I spoke to disagreed, that the right to protest is iron-clad — it’s protected by the Constitution. What some people seemingly forget is that that right is absolute; there are no conditions and there are no caveats, outside of breaking the law. When asked whether he thinks racism in policing is an issue in this country, Hurricane-fan Ben replies, “I’m as white as it gets so I don’t see it in the same way (as PoC do), but I see it, people talk about it, it’s definitely real and we should do a lot about it, but sitting down is the exact opposite of what you should be doing to help out your people in this country.”

Leaving alone that making a distinction between “your people” and clearly stating ‘it’s not my problem’ is about as far from helpful as you can get, Ben exemplifies the ‘It’s okay to protest just not that way’ group, which is large, and predominantly, but not exclusively, white. And, it should be said, has accompanied every single attempt at social change since the beginning of time.

Howard, a white city employee from Tampa Bay in town to watch his Toledo team take on Miami, also said he felt the players had the right to protest but that it was the wrong time and place. Torreka Canady, a young black woman working at the Hard Rock Stadium Customer Service Experience echoed that feeling, saying players had the right but that it was “inappropriate,” as did her co-worker Patricia (“I go by one name, like Prince”), who said, “I only kneel for one person, and that’s God.” So by Patricia’s logic, kneeling for the anthem is the highest honor you could bestow upon it, though she didn’t see it that way.

Paul, whose mom is white and father is black, has a different view: “Just because you disagree with my views doesn’t mean you get to tell me how you want me to express my views. I don’t look at (kneeling) as disrespecting the flag. Look at Charlottesville. I never ran around saying the Nazi’s or White Supremacists were disrespecting our flag. We’ve had racism for more than 200 years in this country, and it’s only now with cell phone cameras and social media that people are beginning to see how widespread it is,” he says, taking a phone call from his family with whom he is meeting up for the Hurricanes game.

“What do you think about this kneeling-protest thing?” was such a window to the soul. With that lone question respondents would take the conversation wherever they wanted, to the issues that most resonated with them.

Kevin Williams was at the Hurricanes game with his wife, their three daughters and three underprivileged kids from a school in Hallandale.

“We bring underprivileged kids to the games each week. My dad got me interested in the Canes when he drove a parking-lot shuttle to the games each week, and after he was done we would be allowed in to watch the games for free. I bring these kids here because I have the means and otherwise they wouldn’t be able to experience this. I’m trying to broaden their horizons,” says the law enforcement worker.

“We live in a great country and we are afforded the opportunity to do whatever fits within the Constitution of the United States. We are allowed to express our opinions. I’m in support of Colin Kaepernick; he’s non-violent, he’s not being disruptive, he’s doing it in a positive way, I have no problem with that. If I wasn’t in the law enforcement community I would do the same — but since I’m in a field that has me a little bit…I just can’t,” explains Kevin.

But then Kevin, a kind, proud, generous black man, conflates what the stated goals of these protests have been with the bigoted talking points denigrating them. “I am in full support of Kaepernick. I can tell you that the field I’m in is what he’s against. What he’s basically protesting against is the field I’m in and I see nothing wrong with it. That’s the purpose of law enforcement, to allow everyone to express their Constitutional rights and their beliefs as they see fit as long as it’s within the rights granted by the Constitution and it’s not against the law. How people view that, that’s up to them.”

SINCE WE’RE COUNTING: The US Flag Code, which has received much attention this week, prohibits the flag from being worn as a bath towel. But athletes who engage in their Constitutionally protected rights are traitors to their country, many on the right say.

But Kaepernick and the hundreds of professional athletes who took a knee or joined arms aren’t doing so to protest the flag, the anthem, the military or law enforcement. They’re protesting the fact that the laws and the rules of this country, and specifically the criminal justice system, don’t seem to be applied equally to all members of our society, and those who apply these rules (typically the police, but government as well) are responsible for this very real and disturbing trend. And if Kevin, an educated black man in the law enforcement field, can’t clearly see that or articulate it, then what chance does the rest of the country have?

Some feel that this is merely a protest against the President (ignorant, willfully or not, of the fact that Kaepernick took his first knee in a pre-season game in 2016, well before Trump was elected) and that if he had just not been so bone-headed in dealing with the issue things would have blown over and “we could have returned to normal” in America, as Federal agent “Bobby” (not his real name) from a local sports bar explained.

“What a dumb thing for the President to say. This could be the beginning of the end of the NFL, and now MLB is getting involved? It’s just stupid!” yelled a regular customer into his phone at Tom’s NFL, a local sports bar in Miami Gardens an hour before the Dolphins kicked-off with the New York Jets. After he hung up, the man sitting next to him, whom he had never met, turned to him, shaking his head, and said, “He was up 4 or 5 points this week, and then he has to go all Barney Fife and shoot himself in the foot again.”

It was clear the consternation, at least for these two, was focused on the President of the United States starting a war of words with institutions they had deep feelings for. Had POTUS said something about ending the CHIP program or the umpteenth iteration of the travel ban, it would have passed without comment. But threaten the Sunday and summer traditions of American sporting life (and more accurately the viewership of said sporting life) and now it’s a bridge too far.

When asked why he felt it wasn’t hypocritical to remain seated at home when he believes the anthem requires you to stand, Ben explains: “It’s not the same thing. When you go out in a public setting it’s much different than sitting at home in my underwear with a couple beers. At the game you’re out there representing people and your country, it’s a lot different.”

Did you hear that NFL fans? Next time you’re at the game, remember that Ben expects you to act as if you’re “representing people and your country.”

No one seemed to care that this guy was throwing up all over the stadium during the national anthem. Must be because he wasn’t kneeling.

To a person, everyone at Tom’s NFL awaiting Sunday’s first games were discussing the issue. It was on Meet the Press and every pre-game show on television. It monopolized social media and it sucked in people who just wanted to watch some football. Which is why the answers people gave to the question, “What do you think about this kneeling-protest thing?” was such a window to the soul. With that lone question respondents would take the conversation wherever they wanted, to the issues that resonated with them most.

Some traveled down the financial route, outlining that a very talented and worthy black man had just thrown millions of dollars down the drain, and for what?

“He f**ked up an entire career, for what?” questioned Carlos Escobar, who was at the Canes game with his friend Manny Gonzales.

“It’s a tough situation. The USA is definitely unfair to a group of people, but this is the wrong setting,” explains Manny, playing the ubiquitous NIMBY card. What seemed to be lost on these people was that this fact — that Kaepernick gave up millions for his beliefs — gave nothing but credence to the man’s positions and his dedication, and frankly, his selflessness.

Others, like Tom, jumped on the suggestion that the protests were anti-military and anti-American. “It’s not a black and white thing,” Tom said, pre-empting a Presidential tweet by more than 12 hours, “it’s a disrespecting the military thing.”

But Kaepernick has never shown animosity toward the military. In fact, it has been just the opposite, as former San Jose Mercury News reporter Tim Kawakami tweeted last September from a game Kaepernick was involved in.

As Kaepernick himself has said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

Abel Rostran, originally from Nicaragua, now a U.S. citizen, says, “Being able to kneel for the national anthem is what makes America the greatest. I’m from Nicaragua, and if you don’t agree with the government, you are in big trouble. I also think you should be respectful to the flag that has opened up opportunities for people like me. But I do respect the people who do it, I don’t agree with them, but I respect their viewpoints. Personally I wouldn’t do it. They should also realize they will get criticized for it. It’s unfortunate that our country is so divided.” In Nicaragua you don’t have the choice to sit or stand for the anthem.

Anthem time at Tom’s NFL. Hats on, butts in seats, phones at the ready, and lots and lots of talking and laughing.

Regardless of what road respondents went down in responding to the What do you think of this controversy? question, there was one thing that was consistent in many people’s response: hypocrisy.

Whether it was Tom citing that he doesn’t stand for the anthem in his living room because “I don’t hear it,” or the full-house (not one empty seat in the place)of customers at Tom’s NFL who, to a person, remained firmly seated during the entire playing of the national anthem despite it being piped loud and clear into the bar, the blatant disregard for consistency was staggering.

At Tom’s NFL, two men at the corner of the bar took off their hats and put their hands over their hearts when the anthem played, but literally everyone else looked at their phones, chatted, laughed, went to the bathroom or ordered food and booze. And yet just minutes earlier many had explained how the anthem was sacrosanct, how it should rise above any petty squabbles about rights and beliefs, and that any American worth their salt should just respect the flag’s authority without question, which meant showing the appropriate amount of reverence, like standing at attention with your hat off and your hand over your heart, during the anthem. Two minutes later, after they had spent the previous 2 hours debating the issue (which meant agreeing with each other) and crying foul about players taking a knee for social change, not one person stood for the anthem. Not. One.

“If you don’t stand for the anthem you’re disrespecting the military.” At Tom’s NFL not one person stood for the anthem. Only two of the standing-room-only crowd, removed their hats.

While hypocrisy is certainly not unique to this issue, every football and sports fan I spoke to over the two-day period seemed to have only really thought about the issue superficially. They hadn’t done even a modest examination of the facts about what they were espousing and how the issue, and in particular their beliefs, fit into the larger issue of equality in our society and our country. Part of this can be blamed on our short-snippet media world (social and otherwise) where the longest we can talk about something is 2 minutes or 140 characters and then we’re on to the next issue. But if you’re not willing to educate yourself about something as important as basic rights of Americans and the Constitution of the United States, well, that speaks volumes about what lay ahead not only for this issue but for this country.

Only one person of the two-dozen interviewed said they would physically confront someone who sat in their seat during the anthem, and that person was fortified with barley and chicken, so hopefully that’s a good sign.

At the end of the day Americans are going to weigh in because that’s what our Constitution gives us the right to do, and boy do we love to weigh in, regardless of how stupid we sound or are.

When asked if athletes kneeling has any value in providing awareness of the controversy at hand, Ben, who just a minute earlier had said much must be done to address racism in policing, said, “None whatsoever. It just looks dumb and immature.”

This coming from a man who insisted on kneeling in the football stadium parking lot as he explained how “dumb and immature” it was for professional athletes to kneel for a cause they wholeheartedly believed in.

God bless America. We’re gonna need it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Drew Nederpelt’s writing, photos and/or commentary have appeared in the Miami Herald, Wall St. Journal, New York Post, SF Gate, , Boston Globe, Vogue, TV Guide, Toronto Star, Cosmo, Yahoo!Sports, New York Press, Scout.com, Medium and others. He is actively involved at Florida International University, sitting on 3 boards, and is a member of 4 Chamber of Commerce boards. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, a member of The Author’s Guild (since 2002), and is the founder of the Health & Wellness Channel. He can be reached at DrewNederpelt.com