Assuming that you could force a six-and-half-foot-tall, 290-pound, thoroughly muscled man with an aggressive attitude to do something — such as stand up for the national anthem — are you sure that you would want to inject that element of coercion into what should be a respectful, devoted and completely voluntary act?
This week, the National Football League and the team owners will talk about this. They’ve invited a few players to sit in, as well.
At issue is what to do about players who choose to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem or who prefer to stay in the locker room until the game starts. Whatever the league and the owners decide, no one can be sure what will happen.
Last year the owners sent a not-so-subtle message to the players by declining to sign the original kneeler, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback that many agree is better than other quarterbacks currently employed by NFL teams.
But the message didn’t get through. This season, more players began to choose not to stand during the anthem. Inexplicably, but maybe not surprisingly, President Trump exacerbated the controversy by urging the owners to fire any player who won’t stand up, driving the point home with trademark name-calling.
At first, some owners tried to placate the players. For example, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knelt arm-in-arm at midfield with his players before the anthem, during which the whole team dutifully stood.
But this hasn’t worked, either. On Oct. 8, Jones, a Trump supporter, took a tougher line: “But if there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play.” The expression is ambiguous, but presumably it means that any player who doesn’t stand up will be sitting down — on the bench. And presumably he — like Kaepernick — will eventually lose his livelihood.
No one has the right to gainsay anyone else’s patriotism, but it’s worth noting that the owners and the league, for all their public devotion to the flag, have an enormous stake in their $10-billion industry. And with President Trump publicly calling for fans to stay away from games if players decline to stand, the NFL and the owners have a significant incentive to somehow force their players to comply.
But what if the players push back? Last Friday Russell Okung, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, wrote an open letter urging his 1,700 fellow players to “collaborate and exercise our agency,” before they receive their “respective marching orders.”
Of course the issues that provoked in some players the current lack of enthusiasm for the national anthem ceremony involve questions of racial injustice and inequality. And while 70 percent of the NFL players are black, there are still plenty of white players who appreciate the right to free expression and who recognize that the racial issues being raised are legitimate.
Besides, nobody wants to be pushed around. And that probably includes you, the fan.
In fact, the fan’s obligation to show quiet reverence to the flag is identical to the players’. And certainly not every fan dutifully does so. During the anthem, plenty of fans are talking, goofing, taking selfies, buying hotdogs or standing in line at the urinals.
And while the league doesn’t have any incentive to force these fans into line, there’s a certain strain of Americanism that doesn’t hesitate to use outward symbols of patriotism as an index on what’s in a citizen’s heart. Before long we’re looking around us to see who’s standing for the anthem, who’s wearing a flag lapel pin and who’s displaying sufficient reverence during the Pledge of Allegiance. And we’re making judgments about who’s a good American and who isn’t.
That’s the problem with these patriotic rituals. They’re easily overused to the point of meaninglessness or, conversely, they become litmus tests for patriotism. Most important, they have to be matters of free choice; once coercion becomes part of the picture, the ritual itself is hollowed out, no longer worth performing.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at [email protected]