President Trump has picked another fight over the NFL and the national anthem. After the league had reached a compromise — players will be allowed to stay in their locker rooms during the anthem, but they will be punished if they protest on the field during it — Trump decided to restart the conflict.
He abruptly cancelled a White House visit by members of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and angrily tweeted, “Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our national anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling.” With that, the whole stupid controversy kicked off again.
Fortunately, there is a simple resolution available: Stop turning domestic sports into patriotic ceremonies. And if that is too much to ask, stop trying to force athletes to participate.
Professional sports are overrun with schmaltzy patriotic displays. For example, Major League Baseball has the national anthem before the game, some sort of military tribute a few innings in — “honor our military men and women by waving your caps!” — and often more patriotic singing after a few more innings. The renditions are frequently terrible (I habitually mute them if they are part of pregame coverage) and the military tributes do nothing to actually help members of the military.
In fact, professional sports have made money off the military; in the last decade, teams received millions of taxpayer dollars for paid patriotism. That the Pentagon would sponsor these spectacles is unsurprising, as increased displays of sporting patriotism have usually coincided with war. For instance, the singing of “God Bless America” became a regular fixture during baseball games after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In a nation that is at war or otherwise endangered, it is understandable that large gatherings of people would be receptive to patriotic displays. But although this pageantry obviously appeals to many people, there is no real need for a connection between sports and patriotic spectacle. Professional sports did not have to become the locus of public patriotism in this country.
That they have puts athletes in a bind. They are paid to compete at the highest levels of human athletic ability, not to be star-spangled sideline props. But the latter has become expected of them, as a semi-official part of their duties. Sack the quarterback, hit the baseball, make the 3-pointer, participate in patriotic rituals — one of these is not like the others, and it is a demand that is not imposed on the rest of us.
I’ve worked jobs from cooking fast food to teaching undergraduates, and none of them, not even the government jobs, had mandatory patriotic displays. Despite his indignation at others, I doubt that President Trump begins each workday by standing for the playing of the national anthem.
It is therefore understandable that some athletes would resent being treated as props in patriotic spectacles that have nothing to do with their actual job, particularly if they believe that America is failing to address systematic injustices. They should be free to engage in silent protest during these required patriotic displays, even if their cause is wrong.
The peaceful protesting of perceived injustice is in accord with the higher ideals of our nation, whereas mandatory patriotic displays are incompatible with the American belief in liberty and limited government. Protesting during a voluntary ceremony might be rude, but protesting during a ceremony that is required (whether explicitly or de facto) is the only option available to dissenters.
The outrage over the anthem protests is a right-wing version of political correctness that is antithetical to our nation’s culture of freedom. If you don’t want people to protest during patriotic ceremonies, then don’t try to make participation in them mandatory. The president pressuring private organizations to establish patriotic participation policies to his liking is an un-American abuse of power.
Sporting events should not be at the center of our patriotic practices. But if they are, then the athletes should not be required, or even expected, to participate. Their job is to display human excellence in physical competition, not to serve as red-white-and-blue accessories during national pep rallies. If we will not curtail the patriotic bloat attached to professional sports, then we must protect the freedom for athletes to opt out. Contrary to Trump’s apparent wishes, NFL players should be allowed to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, and there should be no pressure for them to do otherwise.
It is silly to argue, as some have, that because the government would not be directly mandating their participation, their freedom would not be infringed upon. Even if the president were not applying public pressure, it is imperative that freedom be preserved not just from government, but also from the mob. The legal protection of free speech (which necessarily includes the right to inaction and silence) will not long survive if it is culturally destroyed. With regard to the NFL and the rest of our nation’s sporting scene, we must be tolerant of those who, for reasons good or bad, do not wish to participate in the patriotic circus.
Mandatory patriotism isn’t patriotic.