Thank the Great Divider for spreading anthem protest

As those who catch my Monday morning appearances to talk politics with Lee Elci on 94.9 FM know, I am a New England Patriots season ticket holder. I went on the waiting list when the team announced the planned move to Hartford and got my first season tickets the year they moved into Gillette Stadium, having just won the team’s first Super Bowl.

It has been quite the run since.

I go to about half the home games, exchange tickets for the rest, keeping things a bit more affordable. One of the games I skipped was last Sunday’s contest against the Houston Texans, missing a chance to watch live another spectacular Tom Brady-led comeback to overcome an awful performance by the defense.

And I also missed watching live as 20 Patriots players took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Meanwhile, Brady stood, his arms interlocked with teammates in a show of unity. But I saw it, of course, because CBS, which like the other networks passes on the anthem during most regular season games to air commercials selling cars and beer, made sure the audience didn’t miss this one. Because now the anthem was news, thanks to the Great Divider, President Donald Trump.

There were boos and taunts aimed at the kneeling players by some of the fans, it was reported. I would not have booed. I would have done what I usually do, remove my hat, place it over my heart and try to sing along, unless it was one of those singers who so slows the tempo that I must surrender and shut my mouth.

I find the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before a sporting contest stirring and meaningful. No matter what our politics, backgrounds, economic or social standing — or team preference — we stand united as Americans. The song is about our flag still flying after a night of battle, but symbolizes a nation and the ideals it represents to the world — the primacy of individual rights and the opportunity for self-rule — also still survive despite all our internal and external struggles.

For military veterans, particularly those who have seen battle, it must have a meaning that I cannot fully appreciate. I am named for an uncle who returned home physically and deeply emotionally scarred after fighting for the Army in the Pacific in World War II. I have a brother who was never the same for his experiences fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.

It bothers me, deeply, if they and those like them are disrespected. I have been known to shout, “Take your hat off,” at some fan more intent on his nachos than in removing his cap during the anthem.

Refusing to stand for the national anthem is the wrong way to try to make a point. It does not draw people to your cause, but instead causes alienation. I cannot imagine the greatest Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., ever using that tactic.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick feels differently. Last season he began kneeling during the anthem, seeking to draw attention to continuing racial injustice. In particular, Kaepernick sought to address the troubling reality that African-American citizens are disproportionately targeted for police stops and for aggressive prosecution and are more likely to be shot in encounters with police.

This is a real problem. Good police departments are trying to find ways to make sure their enforcement practices are color blind. Good political leaders are exploring criminal justice reforms to make the system fairer.

Kaepernick got attention, certainly, but I don’t think he furthered his cause. Instead his actions turned many who may have otherwise been persuaded through reason to dismiss him and his cause. Whether Kaepernick, who has not been signed by any team this year, is being blacklisted because of the controversy he invited or because of poor performance on the field, I don’t know.

What I do know is that his method of protest had little support. Perhaps a half-dozen players took a knee at the games two weeks ago. As far as I can remember, no Patriots player had protested in this fashion.

Then entered the Great Divider, who in a speech in Alabama to his core supporters decided to toss them some red meat, to gin up a national controversy where there was none.

Trump said NFL owners should fire any player who does not stand during the anthem, and “Get that son of a bitch off the field.”

The message to African-American players was for them to do as they were told. If the president or an NFL owner disagrees with their form of protest then they had to comply. They don’t have a First Amendment right to express themselves unless the boss gives permission.

So, last Sunday, hundreds of players kneeled, or refused to take the field, who probably had never thought of doing so. They were asserting their rights and those of their fellow players and brothers. They would not be told what to do.

And some fans jeered. And everyone picked sides. And the talking heads on the news networks blathered on.

It was all so unnecessary. Instead of bringing us together, the Great Divider has found yet another way to sow divisions. His time in office cannot end soon enough.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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