Why Kneeling During The Anthem Is Like Past Protests

For a few weeks I had been debating about writing about Colin Kaepernick and his decision to sit down during the playing of national anthem at NFL games as his means of protesting the mistreatment of black people at the hands of some police officers.

Much has changed since that time, starting with Kaepernick’s conversation with Green Beret Nate Boyer (who spent a year in Seahawks training camp as a long snapper) and the NFL quarterback opting to kneel instead, and followed by more NFL players joining in kneeling for the anthem or other forms of protest, with Denver Broncos LB Brandon Marshall among those players.

Between being busy with my job and other activities, and wanting to sort out my thoughts on the subject, I have not written about this until now. And given that Marshall, a Broncos player, has joined the protests and that two companies dropped him as a spokesperson as a result, it’s even more fitting I address this subject.

Most of you who visit here have posted in support of the decision by players to sit or kneel during the national anthem, even if you don’t agree with the practice. But many of you might not be familiar with the background of the national anthem and the forms of protest that have drawn the most attention. So in order to understand why Kaepernick, Marshall and others are taking action the way they are, it’s important to understand about how the customs pertaining to the flag came to be, what protests and other actions against government policy were all about, and what really got the NFL involved with these patriotic gestures and how their own policies show inconsistency.

The Star Spangled Banner and Other Pro-America Songs and Customs

The Star Spangled Banner is sometimes described as a poem, but Francis Scott Key intended for it to be a song. Key may have been thought more as a poet, but he wasn’t writing poetry. Then again, Key wasn’t exactly the best poet or songwriter and most of his attempts weren’t meant to be seen beyond close family and friends.

Regarding his most well-known piece, Key wrote four verses to it, not just the one everyone is familiar with today. The flag he referred to did not keep flying through the night; it was a large flag made of heavier material that only got heavier when it rained – and it rained heavily that night at Fort McHenry, so the flag was taken down. And, yes, there is a line in the third verse that refers to slavery.

There were many people who sang the song to show their patriotism after the War of 1812, but it wasn’t the only one. (One of those was “Yankee Doodle,” which has an interesting background as well, but that is a topic for another day.) But it took more than 100 years before The Star Spangled Banner was formally adopted as the national anthem. The song was popular among Union troops during the Civil War, but not until President Woodrow Wilson came along, came the first federal recognition of Key’s song as the anthem. Wilson’s executive order didn’t settle the matter, though; there were 40 failed attempts in Congress to adopt that song as the anthem, before it passed March 3, 1931, and was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.

The Star Spangled Banner is not the only pro-America song or custom that has a complex history. Case in point is the Pledge of Allegiance, originally penned by Frances Bellamy, a Baptist socialist minster. Bellamy wrote it in 1892 because he believed patriotism in the United States was at an all-time low. His intent, along with others who supported him, was to instill national pride in the classrooms.

However, there are a few points that must be addressed regarding people’s perceptions about the Pledge and the customs. Bellamy’s original version said “I pledge allegiance to my Flag” with no reference to the United States. That reference was added in 1923 to avoid confusion among immigrants as to which flag they pledged – a reference Bellamy did not approve because he thought it ruined the flow of his work.

Furthermore, Congress didn’t officially recognize the pledge until June 22, 1942. And then there was the decision to add the words “under God” which didn’t officially happen until the Cold War and the worries about Communists. You would think Bellamy would approve because of his Christian beliefs, but at the time Congress took up this issue, Bellamy’s son, granddaughter and great granddaughter issued statements proclaiming otherwise. (It could be reasonably concluded, though, that if Bellamy objected to the addition of the reference to the United States, he would object to the “under God” addition or, for that matter, any addition to what his original writing.)

Finally, there is the custom of placing one’s hand over the heart when reciting the Pledge or when the anthem is played. Again, that was not the original custom. The original custom, which came to be known as the Bellamy Salute, was to extend your right arm toward the flag with your palm facing downward. You are no doubt in disbelief that was ever the case – after all, that’s how the Nazis in Germany saluted. The Nazis never took credit for that salute; they said it originated with medieval Germany. But the salute’s association with the Nazis prompted the United States to adopt the U.S. Flag Code in 1942, stating that the proper decorum was to place your right hand over your heart.

In other words, the anthem and the Pledge, both which seem innocuous on the surface, have complex histories. These were not customs that were rooted in our Founding Fathers. The Star Spangled Banner may have been written when several of them were still alive, but none ever took up the cause of adopting it as the national anthem. The Pledge of Allegiance did not exist until after the Civil War. What the Founding Fathers would have to say about either today is not for anyone to say either way.

The Most Famous Protests Have Been Disruptive and Highly Risky

Let’s talk about one of the most famous protests in history without naming it: A group of individuals dressed up as Mohawk Indians and made their way to a harbor. They approached three ships carrying cargo that many of these individuals demanded be sent back to the country they came from, but the request was denied. They illegally boarded the ships, got the keys to the cargo holds from the ship captains, raided the cargo and dumped it into the harbor. When the cargo washed up on the shore, they shoveled it back into the water.

Let’s count the violations they committed: Criminal trespassing, breaking and entering, theft, destruction of private property and, oh my god, they polluted the water, get the EPA out there on the double!

Of course, what I just described was the Boston Tea Party. The colonists were protesting the Tea Act of 1773, passed by the British Parliament to rescue the ailing East India Company by lowering the tax on its tea and granting the company a virtual monopoly on the American tea trade. I imagine most of you would support the colonists’ protesting the Tea Act, but if a similar situation would occur today, most of you might have a hard time supporting actions such as criminal trespassing and breaking and entering as a means of protesting.

But this is how protests in this country about what colonists (in the case of the Boston Tea Party) or citizens (in cases that took place after the United States officially came to be) viewed as unfair or objectionable policy have happened. The Underground Railroad organizers objected to slavery and, while we view their position as “slavery is wrong” as the correct position, they violated a number of laws to ensure freedom for escaped slaves. When the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, many women attempted to vote when not allowed to do so and were put in jail. The civil rights movement in the 1960s saw many blacks violate not only business policies, but local and state laws in place when they engaged in their sit-ins to protest segregation.

In other words, the strongest forms of protest come when people violate the laws they object to, not when they comply with but holds up signs or speak out about them. And while those who are kneeling or engaging in other actions during the national anthem at NFL games are protected under the First Amendment, they are violating what many view as proper decorum for the anthem. Proper decorum is not that far removed from actual law. And in some cases, these protests happened in the public eye (the sit-ins are a good example of this).

Furthermore, when the colonists engaged in their campaign we know as the Boston Tea Party, they knew they were risking their jobs, families, livelihoods, and maybe even their lives with their actions. The same thing happened to those who organized the Underground Railroad, the women who sat in jail when they backed the suffrage movement, and the blacks who railed against segregation. Simply put, the most powerful forms of protest are the ones in which you risk everything to get your point across.

In today’s world, we like to think that sharing a meme on Facebook, sending out a tweet or holding up a sign on a street corner is the proper means of protest. However, all those actions could just as easily lead to you risking something if somebody doesn’t like what you are saying. On the other hand, they are the type of protests that can be easily ignored. The forms of protest I have covered could not be easily ignored, because laws were broken or, in some cases, they happened in the public eye. The more public a protest is, the harder it is to ignore, and it’s especially hard to ignore it if a law is broken. But with that said, the harder a protest is to ignore, the harder is to get others to ignore the issues the protestors want addressed.

How the NFL Really Treats Patriotic Fever

The NFL did not originate the custom of playing the national anthem before every game. The credit for playing the anthem before a sporting event goes to Major League Baseball. There is evidence of the anthem being played prior to MLB games as early as World War I, but it became widespread during World War II. One thing to keep in mind: Back in those days, baseball was the number one sport in the United States, to the point that baseball teams for adults weren’t limited to the professional leagues. They included recreational leagues organized throughout cities and states. Baseball was a major deal back in the years of World War I and World War II, so when MLB adopted the anthem custom, other sports followed suit.

Through the years, the NFL took over as arguably the top pro sports organization in the United States. Also, through the years, we have watched our playing of the anthem morph from a band playing the anthem while everyone saluted the U.S. flag that flew above the scoreboard to a grand spectacle in which fans unfurl a giant flag, celebrities belt out the national anthem, local military personnel are gathered to stand on the sidelines and jets engage in flyovers. It’s not limited to the Super Bowl; it happens at just about any game the NFL wants to treat as an event.

The NFL likes to pretend that they are doing this to pay respect to the country, the military, the victims of 9/11, etc. In reality, the NFL merely pays lip service to this notion. Their primary interest is to make money. This explains why NFL teams accepted money in the past to organize celebrations of military personnel and why it is so inflexible regarding its uniform policies. Because if just one player even writes a patriotic message on his eye black, that’s the moment the player is going into business for himself and, the next thing you know, those players will make individual deals with sponsors and the NFL won’t get its cut, by gawd!

This leads to the nonsense regarding how the NFL treats players and their individual means of paying tribute to somebody. It’s why Jake Plummer got fined for wearing Pat Tillman’s number on his helmet. He was no longer with the Arizona Cardinals (he was the Denver Broncos at the time) and only Cardinal players got that privilege, even though Plummer played with Tillman and many of those Cardinal players did not. It’s why Titans linebacker Avery Williamson got threatened with a fine when he revealed his plans to wear modified cleats to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (and carried through on his promise).

To the NFL’s credit, it did not follow through with its threat to fine Williamson or others who engaged in their 9/11 tributes. But the threat alone was bad enough. If the NFL isn’t willing to look the other way at the smallest gesture a player wants to make toward a military member or 9/11 victims, all because it didn’t meet NFL approval, then we need to recognize that the NFL is not really concerned about patriotism. It is concerned about putting on a show. And the playing of the national anthem, and everything that accompanies it, can only be considered as part of that show.

(By the way, how often do you spend your time critiquing how various celebrities perform the anthem and whether they are more concerned with drawing attention to themselves than they are about just singing? Hey, let’s play that Simpsons clip!)

We Don’t All Act the Same When the Anthem is Played, Anyway

A quick check of photos and video shots of what NFL players do during the anthem, even when you exclude those who are kneeling, shows that they aren’t consistent in how they act. There are many who place the right hand over their hearts, but their other arm could be down to the side or placed behind their back, and the latter is not considered proper decorum. Others stand at attention, but their hands are either clasped in front of them, to the sides or behind their back. Some bow their heads, but that’s not proper decorum, either. Some players even had their hands clasped to their jersey collars. And while you are supposed to keep your legs straight, some keep their feet apart and some might have a slight bend in the knee.

But look around the stands at any sporting event and you’ll see the same thing. People who do not have their hands over their hearts, who have their heads bowed, who have one hand behind the back even as the other is over the heart, who have a knee slightly bent or the feet spread apart. And those not following proper decorum doesn’t apply only to those who are physically unable to stand.

Furthermore, look at people other than those who are singing or playing the anthem – people we would expect would not be able to follow proper decorum during its playing. At NFL games, people are running TV cameras and, no, they are not put on an automatic setting to run themselves in every single instance. The same applies to photographers who may want to get a picture of what is happening – no, they are not cameras set up to automatically take photos at the proper moment. The people with the cameras are doing a job, capturing the moment so we can have images to remember and perhaps make us feel good about ourselves and our country.

Some of you might believe that, if you are not the one playing or singing the anthem, or not the one holding up the flag during the anthem, you better put your hand over your heart, other hand to the side and look straight ahead. But if you believe those operating cameras of any type are an exception because those people are performing a job, where would you draw the line? For example, what happens if one NFL team decides to bring a high school choir to sing the anthem and parents want to pull out their cell phones and get photos? Those parents aren’t working a job; they’re capturing a moment to put on their Facebook feeds.

And then there is you, the viewer sitting at home watching the game. You might keep quiet when the anthem is played, but how many of you actually stand up, place your hand over your heart, and go through the proper decorum? If you believe that it’s not necessary to do this unless you are actually attending the event in person, then what stops someone from arguing you aren’t as patriotic as you think unless you stand up and follow the decorum for the playing of the anthem, every single time, no matter where you are, what you are doing or when you hear it played?

Even when it comes to the idea of keeping quiet until the anthem, this is not always the case. I have been to some events when fireworks were set off for the line “and the rockets red glare,” and this was done by event organizers to get everybody roaring in approval. Some people cheer for certain lines in the latter part of the anthem – the one that seems to generate the most is “o’er the land of the free.” And I have seen a few instances of high school football teams who sing the final line of the song to be “and the home of the (insert our team name here).”

I do not say these things to put anyone to shame or to tell anyone they aren’t allowed to hold a particular position. I say these things to illustrate that we, the American people, aren’t consistent ourselves with how we treat the anthem. If we cannot all follow the exact same decorum, every single time, when the anthem is played, then how can we reasonably object to somebody who chooses to kneel during the anthem, regardless of their reasons for doing so?

Why the NFL Players Form of Protest is Their Best Means of Protest

Given that our pro-American songs and pledges have a complex history and weren’t recognized as official until the 20th century, that means of protest are most effective when they draw the most attention possible, and that the NFL is more concerned with putting on a show when it comes to its tributes, it makes sense that the likes of Kaepernick, Marshall and other NFL players would choose to kneel during the anthem as their means of protest. In doing so, they are attracting attention, but they are selecting a time in which the NFL wants to draw attention to itself for how much it loves the United States, even if the NFL’s means of doing so may have good intentions.

I have heard the argument that, because the NFL players are their to do a job, it’s like anyone else engaging in protest while they are at their jobs. Here’s the problem with that argument: The playing of the anthem is not required in order for the NFL players to do their jobs. It isn’t required for a player to understand how to run a route or what is and isn’t holding or how a coach draws up a scheme. For those that argue it shouldn’t happen as long as the player is in uniform, people are still going to recognize many of these players if they engaged in such protests when out of uniform and you can bet the press will report on their activities, because that’s what happens when you are a public figure. (And just as importantly, it’s easier for other people to ignore their actions.)

More to the point: If NFL players believe that kneeling during the anthem will be their form of protest and you say they shouldn’t do it during an NFL game, then when? During another sporting event? Or would that be inappropriate because they are a guest at that event? I don’t think anyone would argue they should show up at a school when the Pledge is recited, and I know nobody would argue they should show up during a military ceremony – in fact, I’m sure every NFL player kneeling during the anthem would say they wouldn’t do it during such a ceremony, because such ceremonies are specifically designed for the military.

The truth is, sporting events are one of the few times we regularly perform the anthem in a public setting. We don’t perform it before a play or a movie or a community meal or any other version of a public event that isn’t a sport. In fact, not every sporting event starts out with the anthem. When I was involved with Little League, the anthem was played during opening ceremonies for the regular season and all-star tournaments, but that was it. There are other examples out there, although most of them tend to be low profile and few, if any, in the United States involve professional athletes. The truth is, we seem to think of our pro sports as the specific time to get together and show our unity and patriotism through the anthem, rather than think of them as simply another form of entertainment.

I have heard the argument that the players shouldn’t have been doing anything other than proper decorum this past weekend because it was Sept. 11 and we must remember the victims of those attacks. I would argue, though, that there is no better time for such protest. We wanted to believe that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would unify the United States, but it is clear that we are not. We don’t even have to discuss the anthem and decorum surrounding it to know how divided we are.

In fact, we treat just about every issue in this country as if it were a football game. My side is the best side, those on the other side are the enemy, anybody on the other side does nothing but cry and pout, and don’t even think about working with them. And just by me bringing up this point, I can already hear a few people saying that football teams don’t work together toward the outcome; they go against one other, so treat everything else the same way. Yet when we treat everything in life like it was a football game, where the objective is to win and nothing more need be said, we fall into the trap of never accomplishing a single task.

If anything, Sept. 11 is no better time than to protest actions that we believe to be wrong, or to take a different approach to showing what unity is all about. At the time the attacks happened, the majority of Americans were willing to support whatever measures the government rolled out, especially if it made people feel “safe.” Since then, more Americans have objected to those measures, for reasons ranging from the patriotic fever in the past dying down to new information or further research that changed the minds of many Americans. In other words, Sept. 11 is a good time to be asking ourselves what it really means to show unity or to question actions our own government takes, and if it’s really worth the price to be “safe” at any cost.

There are those who will point out that Marshall has lost a couple of endorsement deals because of his actions. Marshall has said that he understood that could happen. In other words, Marshall shows he understands that, when you choose to protest something, you can risk some part of your life in doing so, especially if it’s in the public eye, hard to ignore and violating decorum. Or to put it another way: Marshall understands his form of protest is similar to past forms of protest that drew a lot of attention and is willing to pay the price.

Finally, Marshall, Kaepernick and other players have taken the time to discuss the issues, meet with people who may be affected or held differing opinions, and opted to donate money to organizations, either those that support their cause or represent people who might disagree with their stances. They have shown a willingness to go beyond those of us who post Facebook memes and send out tweets, but don’t bother to do anything to educate themselves about the complexities of the issues or, worse yet, never bother to donate their time, money or anything else to a particular cause because they think they don’t have to go beyond what they say on social media.

What You Should Do If You Want to Send a Message

For those who agree with what Kaepernick, Marshall and others are doing, remember that nothing is stopping you from kneeling during the anthem at NFL games. And while you might get quite a few stares, catcalls or curses from other fans, you have to remember that it comes with the territory when you engage in such protests. The question you have to ask is whether you are brave enough to take that risk.

With that said, nothing says you have to kneel during the anthem. If you believe there is another way to protest that you are more comfortable with, go ahead. But remember that form, too, will come with a degree of risk and somebody may not like it. Don’t just follow a method that is easy for people to ignore. If you strongly believe in what Kaepernick, Marshall and other players believe in, you have to be prepared to do more than just hide behind your social media accounts.

If you don’t agree with kneeling during the anthem, that is your right to do so. But you should ask yourself this: Are you willing to educate yourself as to the complexities of the issues being brought forward or do you just want to be told what you want to hear? If all you want is the latter, you’re approaching it the wrong way. The former is what you need to do in order to come to an understanding, and then you might find ways to not only suggest what may be a better approach to protest, or perhaps engage in a protest of your own, but doing so to help people understand why there is a better approach to the issues.

If you are so offended by those who kneel during the anthem and want the NFL to do something about it, I will concede one point: The First Amendment doesn’t apply to private industries and organizations, so the NFL could ban the practice if it wanted to. However, that’s going to require far more than angry remarks on social media, because the NFL has ignored those on just about everything else. The only way the NFL might cave in is if enough people quit watching the NFL, to the point its revenues are adversely affected. Even then, that might not be enough, because if it chose to tell all players they had to stand for the anthem, what stops those who favor the protest from boycotting the NFL to the point the league’s bottom line is harmed? If enough people who feel strongly either way took action, the NFL could easily find itself in a no-win situation, and perhaps even decide to stop playing the anthem at all.

But, if you decide you wish to boycott the NFL because it won’t penalize players who kneel during the anthem, it is your right to boycott the NFL. Just remember: Not showing up to the games in person isn’t a boycott. You have to stop watching all NFL games, buying any NFL merchandise, playing fantasy football, or even talking about the NFL on social media, because any sort of association with the NFL is going to indicate you aren’t really willing to boycott it and the NFL will, to some degree, get revenues from you. Are you really willing to go to those lengths to get your point across?

And when it comes to anything you agree or disagree with, I ask this of you: How far are you willing to go to stick by that viewpoint? Are you willing to put your job at risk? Would you do something that might adversely affect your family? Would you protest to such a degree that something important or valued in your life had to be sacrificed? Would you care how many people were watching you, if they heckled you, if they threatened violence, or if they actually did engage in violence against you?

When you answer those questions honestly, you will really know how strongly you stand on the issues. Those in the past who stood strongly on an issue were willing to risk everything. That doesn’t mean you need to change your opinion if you aren’t willing to risk everything for it, but you do need to recognize that, if you want to change things, or even ensure those who push for change don’t bring it about because you don’t believe it’s the right way to go, you’re going to have take risk to some degree and likely risk that comes at a high cost.

A Final Thought

Brandon Marshall shared a tweet the other day with the quote, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” It has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but there is no evidence that Jefferson said that. For the record, the quote appears to have first been used by Mayor John Lindsay of New York City regarding opposition to the Vietnam War.

There is, however, a relevant quote from Jefferson, one that came about shortly after Shays’ Rebellion. That event saw Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army soldier, lead a violent uprising against debt collectors in Massachusetts, to protest the state’s failure to reimburse the soldiers for their service in the Revolutionary War. It was an event that shook up the United States at the time and led to events that ultimately resulted in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States.

I imagine many of you would be uncomfortable with a violent uprising as a means of protesting the failure of the government to properly compensate its military members. But Jefferson had this to say to James Madison when Shays’ Rebellion took place:

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the incroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

I don’t know how Jefferson would feel about kneeling during the national anthem. Nor can anyone else say for certain. But the above quote of Jefferson makes it clear that, even if the “dissent-patriotism” quote further above was not his, he did have strong opinions on the right to dissent. I suspect that, regardless of his thoughts about specific forms of protest, he would still back that right to protest today.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.