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Taking a stand

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 17

Fisher column logo2Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem bothers me.

Watching other NFL players follow the 49ers quarterback’s lead on the first Sunday of the NFL season, the 15th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, upset me even more.

Although I consider Kaepernick’s attitude toward police, which includes practicing in socks featuring pigs wearing police uniforms, to be deplorable, as a strident supporter of free speech, I defend Kaepernick’s right to express his opinion. So I couldn’t put my finger on precisely why these expressions of free speech bothered me so much.

I found the NFL protests on September 11 distasteful because they were disrespectful to the families of those who lost loved ones, including police who rushed to the World Trade Center during the harrowing hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers. The police and firemen who rushed into those buildings didn’t differentiate based on race and ethnicity while risking their lives trying to save people.

I commend Eagles players, who, according to safety Malcolm Jenkins, might employ a symbolic protest gesture before Monday night’s nationally televised game in Chicago, for refraining from any action at the season opener because it was the 15th anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks. Rather than protest, Eagles players took part in a wonderful pregame ceremony, holding the edges of an enormous American flag, along with Vice President Joe Biden and first responders, while the national anthem played and fighter jets flew overhead.

But I didn’t realize what truly bothered me about the protests until today, which is September 17.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the night baseball returned after the 9-11 attacks. Baseball, as was the case with all events that served as large public gatherings, shut down temporarily after the 9-11 attacks. Nobody knew if there were more attacks planned. The sense of fear was palpable. Everyone was afraid to give terrorists another target.

I remember September 17, 2001, as the night that baseball returned. I remember the emotional pregame ceremonies. I remember the tears streaming down Phillies manager Larry Bowa’s face.

What I remember most is the fans’ reaction to the American flag and the national anthem. At game after game, in city after city, the national anthem and the display of the stars and stripes brought this country closer together.

The American flag was a symbol of unity. The singing of the Star-Spangled Banner – and more people than ever sang along – was an instrument of unity.

Here’s how legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas described the moment when the fans at Veterans Stadium greeted the color guard with a rousing standing ovation: “We see waves of people, here at Veterans Stadium, standing united, regardless of race, color, religion or creed. We’re all together as members of the United States of America. (Pause) We’re proud to be Americans.”

What disturbs me about the recent protests during the national anthem is they transform what once was a unifying act into a moment of divisiveness.

Instead of unifying Americans regardless of race, color, religion or creed, as Kalas eloquently described it, the protests highlight the divisions in America. Instead of being a moment during which we proudly honor our nation, the national anthem has become a time to look around to see who is standing and who is sitting, kneeling or protesting in some other manner.

The protests have rapidly spread far beyond the NFL. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is openly gay, supported Kaepernick’s stand against oppression and injustice by dropping to one knee during the national anthem before a National Women’s Soccer League game on Sept. 4.

High school football players around the country are kneeling during the national anthem. I was struck by a picture of the Woodrow Wilson High School football team (in New Jersey’s Camden School District) kneeling during the national anthem – except for two players who bravely remained standing. I wonder how many of their teammates caved in to peer pressure rather than standing out by continuing to stand. Even more disturbing is that the Woodrow Wilson players were following the example set by their head coach, Preston Brown, who explained that he took the action to raise awareness of oppression and social injustice.

The divisiveness has spread from the field to the stands. At a recent high school football game I attended, four fans, one of whom was wearing a shirt with an American flag on the front, chose not to stand during the national anthem. A student made a reference to the “Colin Kaepernicks” over there. Not wishing to see the situation escalate, I told the student not to say anything else about it.

Inside, though, I was torn apart. Instead of using the moment to honor our country, I was on edge, worried about what I should do if these four fans’ refusal to stand for the national anthem sparked a nasty and divisive exchange of words.

During the countless sporting events I’ve attended, I usually take a moment during the national anthem to silently express gratitude for my family and friends and the freedom and opportunity we’re blessed with in this wonderful, albeit flawed, country.

I understand that not everyone views the United States the same way that I do. And I understand why some people feel that way. I truly do.

I defend their right to protest, although I find it ironic that the flag and national anthem that many of the protestors view as symbols of oppression and injustice also symbolize the freedom that allows them to express their views.

Just as the First Amendment protects the protesters’ right to freedom of speech, however, it also protects the freedom of speech of those who choose to criticize them. Free speech is a two-way street.

John Tortorella, the coach for the United States team at the World Cup of Hockey, took a lot of heat for saying, “if any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.” Considering those players are representing the United States, I agree with Tortorella. If they find their country so oppressive and unjust, they could make a stronger statement by resigning from the team rather than benefiting from the prestige of representing the United States. Rapinoe crossed this line Thursday by kneeling during the national anthem while representing the United States in an exhibition game.

What bothers me the most is that I don’t believe these protests are leading to a more productive conversation about social justice and the plight of many minorities in our country.

Instead, I feel as if these protests, because they occur during the national anthem, only add to the division.

Or, rather than adding to the division in our country, perhaps these protests are revealing divisions that already exist. That thought troubles me even more.

I respect protesters’ right to send a message. I just wish they would pick a different way to deliver it.

My wish is that one day, and I hope that day comes soon, the playing of the national anthem will once again serve to heal the divisions in our society and unify Americans rather than divide them.


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