In the fall of 1905, 19 young men lost their lives and an additional 137 men were seriously injured playing college football. In 1909, there were 33 men who lost their lives and even more who were seriously injured. Almost all of them were bright, able-bodied, Ivy League-educated young men. And they were all dying playing football.
That is, until President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent football fan, stepped in and put a stop to it.
Roosevelt made the game of football safer by creating a precursor to the NCAA which set about implementing rule changes like legalizing the forward pass and creating a neutral zone, which allowed players to play football more safely than ever before and the game to grow in a massive way.
I think about this story a lot. The President Of The United States stepping in and changing the game of football forever was an unprecedented move. But it’s an especially poignant story in light of the discussion about sports and politics following this weekend, because without Roosevelt, the game of football wouldn’t exist as we know it.
Throughout the NFL, players have started to protest the National Anthem, and to say that some people are losing their minds over it would be putting it lightly. It doesn’t take much work to go on the Internet and find people calling these players cry babies, divas, entitled, or happily hurling racial slurs for the world to see.
Now, one thing we need to make explicitly clear is that’s what makes America what it is. They don’t have to stand for the National Anthem, and you don’t have to like it. Sure, you can get mad about it, but if you’re going to, at least understand a few things about the NFL, its players, and patriotism.
First and foremost, it warrants remembering that before 2009, most NFL players weren’t even on the field for the National Anthem. They didn’t have to be. At least up until the NFL realized they could market it.
This isn’t hyperbole, and it’s not some insane conspiracy theory. The Department of Defense and The National Guard paid out millions of dollars to the NFL in hopes of upping their recruiting numbers, and in turn, the NFL mandated that players needed to be on the field. All because it made for better marketing.
Now, there are a whole host of ethical issues with this that we could examine, not even counting the fact that according to official code the flag shouldn’t be laid horizontally nor should it be used for marketing or advertising, all things that the NFL is currently doing.
Instead, I think it’s worth asking about the ethics of the NFL using its players to conjure up feelings of patriotism. Paid patriotism, actually. And if patriotism is paid for from the pockets of taxpayers into the coffers of the NFL, is it really patriotism?
Oh, but what about those players?
The players are at the crux of this whole issue, after all. They’re the ones deciding not to stand for something they didn’t have to 8 years ago.
We’ve seen players getting either supported or lambasted for their decisions to stand or not to stand for the National Anthem, to which so many armchair analysts and talking heads scream about politics and sports, entitlement, and publicity stunts.
Those opposed to this form of protest have made the point that these players couldn’t possibly be oppressed. How could they? They’re rich! They’re flashy! They have everything they could ever want!
Now, just the idea that being rich could solve every imaginable problem is absurd. But being rich doesn’t stop them from being tackled by the Las Vegas police force like Michael Bennett was, does it? And when money alone isn’t enough to solve the problems you see in the world, maybe you do have to turn to publicity to help get the word out.
The reality is that these players all have their own experience from which they view the world. Their perception of the world will be forever colored by how they grew up, just like yours. And for many, they grew up in low-income areas of the country where it certainly seemed like the country we demand they love wasn’t doing too much to support them.
Now, there can be all sorts of arguments about policy that led to that sort of reality, but that isn’t what this piece is about. It’s about the fact that their experience is what shapes their perception of the world, and for all of us, our perception of the world is our reality. And for these players, their reality is one in which they feel like they weren’t looked out for as kids and that there’s a system out there that doesn’t look out for them now. And if you don’t feel like your country is looking out for you and your community, well, why would you feel like you have to stand?
We don’t get to diminish that experience of theirs. That’s not our right, just as it wouldn’t be their right to tell me what it’s like to grow up in a small Texas town where I knew everyone I went to school with.
In America we don’t get to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do when they hear the anthem. Moreover, attempting to strip them of their choice for how to listen to the anthem is the exact opposite of living in a democracy, especially when it comes straight from the top, like it did this weekend.
Telling someone that they have to stand for something is akin to what happens in a dictatorship. That is as un-American as it gets. Calling for things like that bring to mind Stalinist-Russia, Nazi Germany, and Mao led China. All countries in which the freedom to disagree wasn’t approved and was often dealt with by death.
This argument might be a bit different if EVERYONE stood with their hand over their heart during the anthem. But bartenders don’t stop pouring beers because the anthem is playing. Shops don’t stop selling merchandise, fans don’t stop trying to find their way to their seats, and most people at home don’t stand out of some convoluted sense of duty.
The anthem isn’t unassailable. It’s not the word of God, and there aren’t enforceable laws that dictate exactly what you’re supposed to do during it. Because this is America, after all.
The anthem isn’t just about the military. Patriotism and the national anthem go far beyond that. They’re symbols of freedom, which are things that are fought for and protected by the military. But they aren’t the only ones. The very right to make the choice of to stand or kneel during the anthem is exactly what was fought for so long ago.
Players get to hear the anthem however they want, just as you do. They don’t get to tell you how to listen to it, just like you don’t. You can certainly be unhappy with how they hear the anthem, but you don’t have the right to make them change. And that very fact is what makes America what it is.
Maybe what’s important here isn’t getting mad that players aren’t acting exactly how you’d like them to, and instead listening to what they’ve got to say. Maybe it’s worth noting that each and every single one of these individuals knew they’d be dragged through the mud for their choice. They knew they’d be opening themselves up to intense criticism and a major backlash, and they did it anyways. Maybe when someone believes in something that strongly, it’s worth listening to what they’ve got to say.