There are very few things closer to the American spirit than football. If anybody wants to see quintessential Americanism, they need to hang around during football season. They’ll get a dose of American hyper-competitiveness, parties, wagers, fist pumps, plenty of yelling at the TV and just 60 minutes of the fun, fast brute violence of highly paid gladiators slamming, pushing and scraping for points on the gridiron. Now that’s America. (Oh yes… Go Skins!)
Equally American is a certain pre-game ritual at almost every sporting event. For a few moments there is absolute silence as a lone voice performs one of the most difficult songs for a vocalist to sing, our National Anthem. One is expected to stand, gentlemen to remove their hats, and face the flag while placing their right hand over the heart. That’s the standard thing for any American citizen to do. At the bare minimum, everyone in attendance is expected to stand as a sign of respect. Refusing to stand is often scorned as dishonorable and decisively un-American.
Or is it? Can we give that another look?
The American experiment has been a struggle between competing values. That has built our greatness and has continued to define American excellence. For example, at our founding, we made a radical declaration that all people are created equal with inalienable human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; meanwhile 20% of our population were forcibly enslaved. Even after the abolishment of slavery 151 years ago, we have still struggled ensure equality and dignity for all African-Americans. That struggle has pushed us to live into our credo.
Another example: We want and need efficient representative government, but there’s also this keen vigilance in the American spirit to be on guard against any governmental intrusion into our lives. We celebrate our freedom and rugged individualism while despising even a hint of tyranny. However we expect our government to protect those freedoms and “promote the general welfare”, with force if necessary. Just don’t tread on me.
Recently a national football player put himself into the middle of another clash of competing American values- American patriotism vs. our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Enter the San Fransisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a very talented athlete who at times has been no stranger to controversy.
During the playing of the National Anthem at a preseason game, Kaepernick refused to stand with everyone else. His sit out was widely noticed and roundly booed. Later he stated,
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
As expected Kaepernick has been fiercely criticized for his sit out of the National Anthem. People have accused him of being un-American and furthering disunity. We’ve heard the usual refrains of, “If he doesn’t like our flag, he’s free to leave.” “There are thousands of soldiers and sailors who have died under that flag protecting his freedoms. He’s dishonoring them!” And of course, the internet trolls came out en masse to graffiti his Twitter account with racial epithets.
Were Kaepernick’s actions and statements justified? Was his behavior un-American? Those are two separate questions.
Without commenting here on the justifiability of Kaepernick’s sit out, I do say this:
Colin Kaepernick’s conscientious sit out of the National Anthem demonstrates what is best about America.
There have been and continue to be kingdoms, empires, and nations who would have severely penalized Kaepernick’s behavior as disloyal and even treasonous.
But that would never happen in the United States. In fact, embedded in our founding documents are Kaepernick’s rights to freely speak, even against his own country. He can pontificate. He can refuse to participate in patriotic exercises. He can even burn the flag of the country who guarantees his right to do so. And while he does any of that, his country’s law enforcement and entire legal system stand by to arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens his wellbeing or his ability to speak freely.
As a Christian, I have had brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who been restricted by their government to assemble, worship, and speak out when necessary against the evils and injustices of that country. I am blessed to live in a nation that protects my right to conscience, even if my loyalty to Jesus ever kept me from participating in patriotic exercises.
That reality alone builds my pride in what is best about America.
So Colin, as a fellow American, I salute your right to sit out our National Anthem as a very American thing to do. For my own reasons I won’t be joining you, and later on I might share why. But in the meantime, you have my support to exercise your conscience. I will defend you for it, too. But far more importantly, the United States of America, including those who defend and uphold your liberty, stand behind you, too.