Guest Commentary

Nobody — NFL protesters or their critics — has a monopoly on patriotism

In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif.
In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. AP

Let the kneelers kneel. It does this veteran no disrespect.

Before our present controversy, I watched plenty of ball games in which players did not act uniformly during the anthem. Some sang, some didn’t. Some placed hand to heart, some didn’t. Many fidgeted, as if the whole thing were a bother. Fans sipped drinks. Yet today many of us carp about private citizens who genuflect in order to say that they want the country they love to be worthy of their love, not one that takes it for granted or compels it as a condition of employment.

I can’t imagine a more dignified, less disruptive protest. The game goes on. Millionaires make more millions. The kneelers and the arm-lockers have returned intention and reflection to American expressions of patriotism.

“Patriotism isn’t political,” a friend says in denouncing the kneelers’ “politicization” of the anthem and of football. Huh? Patriotism is every nation-state’s foundational political relationship. Singing an anthem signifies politically or not at all. Moreover, to believe that the sport was not political before Colin Kaepernick first took a knee is to live in a special kind of fantasy football league.

As a veteran, I’m troubled when people press our armed services into the conversation. The anti-kneelers invariably see standing during a pro-football game’s national anthem as testifying allegiance to the Department of Defense. Even kneelers and their allies are quick to proclaim support of our men and women in uniform. The underlying and bullying premises, that patriotism requires supporting the military and that protesting before the flag ipso facto scorns the military, go unquestioned.

Steve Almond’s book Against Football traces the “overt collaboration between the NFL and the military” that began with Operation Desert Storm. In January 1991, 10 days after we started bombing Iraqi forces — we would drop more tonnage in those weeks than we dropped on North Vietnam in over a decade — the Super Bowl inaugurated its star-studded extravaganza halftime show.

That day I sat on my M1A1 Abrams tank in a nowhere Arabian desert waiting to attack the fourth largest army in the world, an army with years of battle experience and chemical weapons. The enemy promised “the mother of all battles.” The NFL delivered a Disney-produced spectacle of over 3,500 diverse children in various uniforms and the boy band New Kids on the Block singing “It’s a Small World After All.” Are you kidding me? Then Mickey Mouse thanked “our Armed Forces everywhere.”

We’ve been subjected to this wildly successful collaboration ever since. There are the commercials for which taxpayers shell out millions every season. There are the obligatory shots of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines overseas, eating turkey, displaying snowmen and watching the game. There are honor guards, jet fly-bys, platoons leading teams onto the field, military symbols affixed to NFL gear. One official graphic places the NFL logo atop a camouflage ribbon.

Professional football is a multi-gazillion dollar business. It isn’t a civic function or ritual, yet it has become politically correct, crowd-pleasing patriotainment, to the NFL’s profit. The league has leveraged the military brand for its own brand, effectively commercializing the troops. Maybe it should pay the Defense Department to host those ads, to televise deployed soldiers, to defray the cost of the fly-bys.

The commander in chief intervened because the kneelers have compromised his brand. The military’s marketing gimmick is at risk. He’s losing his best recruiting non-commissioned officers. Maybe he should charge them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. At the same time the president has accused the league of sissifying itself with its new safety rules because it compromises his brand, whose raw material is the young body willfully hurling itself at its own abuse and expendability. The black body especially — which continues to supply a disproportionately high number of enlisted personnel.

The NFL’s patriotainment is the subject of Ben Fountain’s brilliant, hilarious novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Destiny’s Child’s actual 2004 halftime show at the Dallas Cowboy’s Thanksgiving Day game, performing “Soldier” with soldiers as props, inspired Fountain. At the end of the show in the novel, there’s a quiet moment when Specialist Billy Lynn believes he is having a private transaction with the universe. He later learns that his private moment was shared on the Jumbotron and on television screens worldwide.

And try as one might to sideline the original issue, it all comes back to race. White commentators cheered Whitney Houston’s rendition of the anthem for the Desert Storm Super Bowl for uniting the nation. A few weeks later, white cops brutalized Rodney King. Hadn’t Beyoncé’s “Formation” Super Bowl performance, 25 years after Whitney Houston’s anthem and twelve years after Beyoncé’s Thanksgiving performance as a member of Destiny’s Child — hadn’t it been there all along?

Let’s not pretend that we can remove politics from football by getting past the kneeling controversy. Can’t we try, though, to restore the anthem moment to one of individual reflection? Let’s leave each other alone in our thoughts and personal expression. Let’s respect the country by first respecting our compatriots.

A few years ago in Vietnam, I heard a brave and clever young Vietnamese woman publicly critique the police state that is her country and its “monopoly of the patriotic” by asking: “If someone gives you the definition of love, can you love anymore?”

When the national anthem plays I do not sing, place my hand on my heart or salute. Those gestures feel awkward, not genuine. But I don’t shuffle my feet either. I stand at attention the way West Point taught me: heels together, toes slightly apart, fingertips curled into palms with thumbs pointed down against the pant seam, crown of the head reaching up, and shoulders pulled back and down slightly in proper natural alignment. “Eyes front, toad!” Eyes front. I’m certainly not looking at what other people are doing.

And I reserve the right to kneel or lock arms until the day I head to Fiddler’s Green. Do not tell me how to love my country. Or my army. Or my sports. Oh, one more thing: Beat Navy.

Alex Vernon is a professor of English at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

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