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By Brian Keepers
“There are only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up, tell em’ what you believe in, and make a statement. So today I thought that was that chance and so I took it.” – Julius Peppers (Carolina Panthers)
“I know for a fact that I’m no son of a bitch, and I plan on continuing forward and doing whatever I can from my position to promote the equality that’s needed in this country.” – DeShone Kizer (Cleveland Browns)
The National Football League (NFL) has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years. A game that continues to become more violent and real concerns about long-term brain injury. Problems with domestic violence with some players off the field. An expanding empire that has made its ambitions known to not only “own” Sundays but every day of the week. There is much about the NFL for which to be concerned and critical.
But yesterday, as teams gathered across the country (and two teams traveled to London), in my opinion we saw the NFL at its best. A wave of unity and protest swept across the league. Entire teams kneeling or standing arm-in-arm, several teams remaining in the locker room during the national anthem. Players, coaches and owners, including the NFL Commissioner, speaking out.
All of it came as a response to President Trump’s inappropriate comments at a rally on Friday in Hunstville, Alabama. Trump took aim at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as an act of protest against inequality and social injustice, calling these players unpatriotic “sons of bitches” and urging team owners to fire them for “disrespecting the American flag.” He further urged fans to get up and leave the stadium if even one player kneels. His comments were followed up with a round of tweets, which as usual, only dug him deeper in the hole.
Once again, Trump has managed to insult and alienate another vast segment of the population, this time taking on professional athletes in the NFL and NBA (National Basketball Association). Rather than uniting and inspiring our country during a time of so much division, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric only seeks to further divide.
But what we saw over the weekend was as outpouring of professional athletes, coaches and owners who were impassioned and thoughtful in their responses, calling the president to account and demanding more from him and more from this country they love. Professional athletes and coaches who want to use their platform for good, and who desire to make this country a better place. Professional athletes and coaches who seem to have a better grasp of the Constitution than our president.
What happened yesterday was not an act of disrespect for the American flag or for our military men and women who serve so sacrificially throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament.
Let’s just be clear. What happened yesterday was not an act of disrespect for the American flag or for our military men and women who serve so sacrificially throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament. The psalms meet the gridiron. As one player described, in the same way a flag is raised to half-mast as an act of sorrow when a national tragedy has occurred, so kneeling is an act of remorse at the injustice and inequality that exists in our society, a kind of lament for what is and also a hopeful protest for what can be.
And the overwhelming response yesterday was targeted at the president. It was a clear message that the person who occupies the highest office in our nation and is a leader in the free world cannot get away with this kind of rhetoric. These players and coaches will not be bullied and intimidated. Nor will they be divided. It is a time for unity. Enough is enough.
We can debate about whether kneeling for the national anthem is the best way to exercise one’s first amendment rights, and whether or not there are better ways for professional athletes to express their political and social opinions.
But these men are not “unpatriotic sons of bitches.” And for the president to once again resort to such juvenile insults deserves a personal foul of the highest degree. If the president would listen to why so many of these players are choosing to express their convictions in this way, the majority who are men of color, he would discover that they are deeply patriotic and they want what the President of the United States should also want: a more equitable, just and unified country.
Patriotism is not turning a blind eye and giving uncritical allegiance to leaders, regimes and policies, even if it violates the deepest values and ideals of one’s country. True patriotism is having the courage to speak and act out of love for one’s country, naming where it fails to live up to its ideals and calling it to something more.
By peacefully kneeling during the national anthem out of a love for the best ideals of this country, one could make the argument that these players are not “disrespecting the American flag” but just the opposite: they are showing the utmost respect for the American flag and all that it stands for.
There are still problems with the NFL and questions about the safety of the sport. But for all who might be quick to dismiss NFL players as overpaid, violent gladiators who are only interested in fame and fortune, yesterday we saw a demonstration of heart, intelligence, and courage that is worthy of notice and commendation.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.