Engaging in cheap political theater, Mike Pence left the stadium in Indianapolis — on the same day that Indiana's hero of heroes, Peyton Manning, was to be honored. Doing his best Trump dance, he registered disapproval of football players who were making a quiet protest against what they perceive to be government-sponsored violations of everything the American flag is supposed to stand for. The players who take a knee are protesting what they regard to be hypocritical sanctimony: police brutality that goes unpunished, white violence that is tolerated, voter suppression that is ignored, even promoted — all vestiges of America's original sin.
Perhaps they were also protesting the narcissistic occupant of the White House, who yowls about how their concerns over serious head injuries are ruining the game.
Might we at least put the national anthem into perspective? It wasn't even original music. It was an old British drinking club song that could be sung only after one had downed several pints. It has been the official anthem only since 1931, and the choice was controversial. It was opposed for its racist overtones and its militancy (message: there is more to patriotism than making war). It was opposed for the support it was getting from the segregated South.
NFL players are not the first athletes to associate their patriotism with politics and protest. Muhammad Ali wrote the following regarding his refusal to fight in Vietnam: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
Ali showed his patriotism in much the same way, by refusing to go along to get along. Then, as now, taking such a stand requires remarkable courage.
How in the world can football players who are quietly kneeling be regarded to be disrespectful? Unless, that is, one confuses the word "customary" for the word "respect." Respect for what? The custom? Where does it say that custom determines respect? Respect determines respect. Standing and bowing a head, or kneeling, should not be regarded as disrespectful just because it doesn't conform to what is "customary." Since standing is the custom, any other display is disrespectful? Is that it?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but might I remind the players' critics, especially our occupant of the White House, that the Supreme Court, in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), ruled that the state cannot compel students to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a decision that revolved not around religious freedom, but freedom of speech and expression. Which, of course, is exactly what the players were and are up to — exercising their Constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.
American presidents have a broad range of responsibilities. One is to serve as "chief citizen." That is, the citizen who speaks for all the people. We might view this aspect of the job as that of chief teacher. No president did it more dramatically or eloquently than did Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.
Only 272 words, this speech expresses — as no other speech has, before or since — the challenge, the hope, indeed, the very ideas that undergird the American experiment, and the ideals upon which this nation-state was founded.
Lincoln wrote: "It is... for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
It is this promise that NFL players continue to believe in, but do not believe America is fulfilling. It's Lincoln's promise that leads them to continue their dignified protests.
As chief citizen, Donald Trump has flunked. He reacted by wrapping himself in a blanket of disrespect. Instead of a thoughtful, empathetic and understanding response to the players and their concerns, we got another dose of his trademark blather — mean-spirited, narrow-minded, thinly veiled partisan, racist, rabble-rousing blather.
Notably, as chief citizen, he faced an uphill challenge from day one. He had, after all, lost the popular vote by almost three million votes, but instead of accepting his minority status and working to address it, he dismissed the truth as "fake news" and all but gave up on his role as chief citizen.
Oh yes, as for Mike Pence's bit of cheap theater, directed by his boss? His sad little production cost taxpayers $243,000 — more than we citizens pay him annually to serve us. ♦