The NFL announced last week that it is currently in discussions with the NFL Players Association regarding rules for the league and its players on the issue of the national anthem and players’ silent protests. These protests, started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, seek to draw attention to the unequal treatment of people of color by law enforcement.
Highlighting this important issue has had some serious backlash, with everyone from everyday fans to the current president of the United States calling these men out as unpatriotic.
The NFL recently drafted a rule that would impose discipline on teams that have players who decide not to stand for the anthem, leaving them the option of remaining in the locker room during the anthem if they wish. The Players’ Association filed a grievance against the league, resulting in the joint statement issued by the league and the association that they’re suspending new rules until a mutually acceptable solution can be found.
Democrats have been largely silent on this matter, to the detriment of the party and our nation. Far from being a political football, this has the potential to help Democrats reframe a variety of concepts that the Republican Party has co-opted over decades. The widest-ranging issue is really more of a concept — patriotism. The GOP has cast itself as the party of patriots, the party of the flag and American identity, for 40 years. From controversies over flag-burning to the very idea of what makes an American, the GOP has triumphed in convincing a large segment of Americans that its version of patriotism is the only interpretation. This isn’t because Democrats lost the debate, it’s because they didn’t show up.
Democrats have an opportunity, provided by this president, to take the entire idea of what it means to be a patriot away from the GOP. Large swaths of America think being a patriot means hanging a flag off your truck. These people think criticizing (their) president is unpatriotic, and anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideal isn’t a “real American.” These ideas are wrong and stupid. Democrats have an opportunity to recast this debate into what being an American really means.
The question becomes how do we, as a party and individuals, make this argument effectively? One place to start is with the men of the NFL who’ve chosen to use their platform to speak out against minority treatment by law enforcement. Patriotism doesn’t mean blind loyalty to your nation, but rather taking a clear-eyed view of your nation’s strengths and weaknesses and doing your part as a citizen to help correct those weaknesses.
This is exactly what these football players are trying to do. Peaceful protest isn’t about making people comfortable, it’s about making people uncomfortable with a situation that isn’t reflective of who we want to be as a nation.
Ultimately the question surrounding these protests is just that: Who do we want to be as a nation? If we are true to our ideals, to the concept that all men are created equal, then we must acknowledge that reality has failed to match that high bar. In this nation, people of color are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned at rates disproportionate to their representation in the population. Kaepernick and those he’s inspired are speaking out against injustice, and make no mistake, it is an injustice. It’s a betrayal of the highest ideals of our republic. How, then, are Democrats supposed to speak about this and correct this betrayal?
The GOP has co-opted the symbols of what makes America great. We need to take them back. We need to speak about our flag as a symbol of our ideals and put to rest this idea that “disrespecting” the flag somehow dishonors our military and veterans. Our military exists to secure the peace but also to defend our ideals.
As a veteran, I find nothing disrespectful about these professional athletes using a symbol that I cherish to start a conversation. Instead, these men are using that very symbol to stand up for the lofty rhetoric our Founding Fathers put on paper over two centuries ago. As Democrats, we need to stand with these men and put their protest into its proper context. That context is that true patriotism isn’t blind loyalty, it’s loyalty to higher ideals. Republicans will hoot and holler that kneeling during the anthem is un-American, and we need to combat that with the truth.
Mike Bailey is a veteran of the United State Air Force, a former Republican and currently a registered Democrat. He lives in Layton with his wife, five kids and two dogs.