The one and only time I sat out the Pledge of Allegiance, I was in elementary school. A couple of friends — one was the son of a cop and, years later, the other would earn his officer’s commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy — told me that we didn’t have to participate in reciting the pledge every morning like the rest of our classmates if we didn’t want to.
So, in an act that far from a protest against injustice was actually a protest against convention, the three of us — without any objection from our teacher — refused to place our right hands over our chests and remained silent through the entirety of the short ceremony.
It didn’t feel right at the time. The next day, I participated, as I have done ever since whenever the pledge is called for.
Had we been reprimanded or called out or punished, I doubt my act of civil disobedience would have been limited to a single day’s silence. Now admittedly, I am no Colin Kaepernick, but it is worth pointing out that prior to this weekend’s presidential pouring of gasoline on the fire of what the Trump base considers to be tantamount to flag desecration, only a handful of National Football League players had been joining Kaepernick in his weekly taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem.
Kaepernick earned headlines last year for his decision to publicly identify with the Black Lives Matter movement and protest each pregame salute to the flag, but by the time the NFL’s Week 3 rolled around few were talking about it. Kaepernick, a former San Francisco quarterback who is now a free agent, isn’t even playing this season.
Then came President Donald Trump’s speech Sept. 22 in Alabama in which he called for anyone pulling a Kaepernick to be summarily booted from his football team.
Trump even used some of the most vivid language to date to describe a football player kneeling during the national anthem, words he hasn’t yet used to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Get that son of a b—– off the field, off the field right now,” Trump said. “He’s fired.”
The rhetorical broadside prompted other athletes to join in the protest, only this time they weren’t protesting police violence against minorities; they were instead supporting the ability of fellow players to engage in political protest from the sidelines. None other than the Dallas Cowboys — “America’s Team” — began this week’s Monday Night Football game against the Arizona Cardinals kneeling and locked arm-in- arm with owner Jerry Jones.
The American flag and what it represents deserves the utmost respect. That is why I teach my children to recite the pledge and to stand at attention for the national anthem.
This summer, we came out early for the Philadelphia Phillies’ July 4 game to watch the patriotic pregame show featuring a parade of all 50 state flags carried by veterans from every American war since World War II. Tears came to my eyes, especially as I thought of the sacrifices my grandfathers — and their fellow members of the Greatest Generation — made in the defense of freedom.
But I’ve got to say a chill went up the back of my neck when, after the final note of “the home of the brave” was sung, an obviously drunk group of fans to my left shouted in unison, “USA! USA! USA!”
Ultimately, devotion to the ideals represented in the flag and the anthem that celebrates it cannot be summed up in a chant of three letters angrily shouted between sips of beer. And it shouldn’t be invoked as a means to suppress the speech of others agitating for those very real American values of justice and freedom.
It should instead prompt a national conversation about rights and sacrifice, and an acknowledgment that a player taking a knee can be just as patriotic as a fan burning his NFL gear.
Unfortunately, it seems that the chances of having a national debate and rational discussion are about as slim as making a 61-yard field goal to win the game with one second left on the clock.
Of course, as we saw with Jake Elliott’s unimaginable performance in the Eagles’ squeaker of a win against the Giants, we should never give up hope.