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If You Think This Is About the Flag

You’re missing the point entirely

Clay Rivers
Sep 25, 2017 · 6 min read
Image by Stephen Brashear, Associated Press


An object that represents something else is a symbol. Symbols by their very nature are a kind of shorthand for larger concepts. Pulling your hands away from your pursed lips is a gesture that signifies a kiss. A red octagon conveys the message “stop.” And the capital letter S with one or two parallel vertical lines extending just above the cap-height and below the baseline denotes money in the United States.

Of Star and Stripes and the National Anthems

The American flag is symbol that represents several large concepts. Yes, there’s the white stars on the field of blue that represent the fifty states; and the red and white stripes that stand for the thirteen colonies that declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and went on to become the United States.

The American flag also carries with it some pretty weighty concepts … like “we the people,” liberty and justice all, and equality under the law, to name a few. Those phrases are also symbols for broad, sweeping concepts woven into this country’s history. But the flag is neither the guarantor nor executor of Americans rights and freedoms, nor does it represent the nation’s armed forces or military. It is but a metaphor for some much larger, the notion of a more perfect union. America at its best.

Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted in 1931 as our national anthem and as a work that is sung with instrumental accompaniment and requires listening, as opposed to a static or visual object, it probably carries as much emotional connection and patriotic representation to the ideals to which America aspires as the stars and stripes. Combine the flag and the national anthem and you’re in for an emotionally moving experience. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

Taking a Knee

In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick wanted to make a personal statement about social injustices leveled against people of color. After much consideration, he decided the form of personal peaceful demonstration would be to “take a knee” during the national anthem. The phrase refers to a maneuver in football wherein the quarterback brings a play to an immediate end by dropping to one knee after receiving a snapped ball.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
— Colin Kaepernick,

Seems pretty straightforward. Mind you—

  1. His demonstration is protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.
  2. Standing during the national anthem is not a condition of NFL employment.


Demonstrations, or acts of resistance, have existed in this country long before it was this country. This country was born of demonstrations and protests. The Boston Tea Party was once such demonstration.

  • Labor Movement—established labor unions, child labor laws, health benefits, and medical aid to injured workers
  • The Fight for Women’s Suffrage — resulted in the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote (1920)
  • The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (August 1963) — resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Civil Rights Movement (1950s-60s)—innumerable nonviolent demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience all over the U.S. that brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Black Power Movement (1966)—helped get black Americans elected to office and admitted to college
  • Vietnam War demonstrations (1969) — spawned demonstrations around the U.S. and the world for peace
  • Stonewall Riots (1969) — spawned the gay rights movement
  • The Tea Party (2009)—aided the Republican Party in reclaiming the majority in the House of Representatives
  • and many, many more; large and small

All of these acts of resistance were a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. And by that I mean, the point wasn’t simply to resist, but a stop en route to another goal. Marches, protests, rallies, sit-ins, strikes, walk-outs, et al, are intended upset the normal flow of life on some scale in order to draw attention to and prompt meaningful dialog about and change concerning political or social justice issues. As the name implies “nonviolent” or “peaceful” demonstrations are just that, nonviolent and peaceful.

Side Notes

So what’s the big deal about an NFL player taking a stand against social injustice? Mr. Kaepernick was not “given” a career. He worked his ass of to become the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. His salary is neither a gag order, nor is it a a set blinders to social injustice. Add to that the fact that the guy is putting his money where his mouth is by—

  • donating $900 thousand to date of $1 million of his own money, along with
  • the proceeds from his jersey sales “to fight oppression of all kinds globally, through education and social activism.
  • he’s also given $50,000 to the Charity Meals on Wheels
  • according to The Washington Post he has partnered with 100 Suits and given free suits to people who have been released from prison and are looking for jobs

For those of you who think this is about disrespecting the flag, military, or law enforcement—it’s not. For Kaepernick, and all NFL football players, coaches, franchise owners, and the like who choose to “take a knee,” as well those who stand or sit in solidarity with them on and off the field, this is much bigger than the flag or national anthem. This is about helping America realize its potential and delivering the promises for all its citizens, not all of one kind of its citizens

Stay in Your Lane

It escapes me why folks are so bent out of shape by those choosing to express themselves in a manner that affects no one, but themselves. If while in the stadium, you opt to honor the flag by standing at attention with your hat removed and hand over your heart—great! But tell me this: do you do the same at home, in your favorite sports bar, or when you’re hanging out with friends and you’re watching the game? If you’re focused on your own honoring of the flag, what difference does it whether someone else is taking a knee, a pee, or lying prostrate? Honoring the flag is not compulsory. That’s not the country in which we live.

If …

If racial equality isn’t front of mind with you, why tear down the effort of others who willing to fight that fight? How can you in good conscience drape yourself in the American flag with its tenets of “we the people,” liberty and justice all, and equality under the law, and not want to level the playing for your fellow Americans?

If your brand of patriotism concludes when that giant flag is walked off the grid iron, I’ll opt for Kaepernick’s love of country and aspiration for a better America every time.

If your recreation is so precious that in the time it takes to sing one verse and a chorus of the national anthem that you can’t be bothered or reminded that you have fellow citizens who fight against the ill effects of systemic racism on a daily basis, the words to the anthem you sing are ashes in your mouth.


America, with all that’s going on—people in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida, whose lives are in a complete shambles, add to that the fires out west, plus the potential nuclear pissing contest—there’s plenty of better ways to demonstrate true patriotism than tearing down someone else who attempting to help others. If NFL players, coaches, and staff taking a stand against racial injustice is that upsetting, stop attending the games and form your own league.

You do know there’s Nazis living among us, right? Nazis!

And that whole Russia-tampered-with-our-voting investigation is still in play? Stay focused, people.

Love one another.

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.

Clay Rivers

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Author, art director, actor, and optimist. I write about equality, faith, and racism. Let’s chat over espresso. Books at:

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.