Controversy over NFL players purportedly kneeling in protest of police brutality during the National Anthem has spurred much debate on what exactly “respecting the flag” means. At issue is whether kneeling constitutes disrespect for the military or conversely, as some argue, demonstrates support for the democratic ideal of peaceful protest that is embodied by the flag itself. At least that appears to be the issue at first blush.
The Anthem Plays
However, the problem runs deeper than protest and what happens during the opening ceremony before a football game. For those of us who have attended football games with great sensitivity to the moment the National Anthem plays, stark is the fact that many attendees who have nothing to do with kneeling, instead talk, laugh, order beer, use their smartphones, and even stay seated while it plays. This suggests a far greater apathy that may offer an explanation for why fewer and fewer eligible, qualified young people join the military than in past times. These people escape the harsh glare of criticism reserved for the helmeted millionaires on the field yet arguably bear far greater consequences in terms of future national defense.
The kneeling argument, however, eclipses the latter concern because of its provocative, non sequitur underpinnings. When Francis Scott Key penned the National Anthem as the American flag flew over an embattled Fort McHenry in 1819, his references to hirelings, slaves, and freemen were contemporaneous to that time and, yes, serve as reminders of the tortured logic behind how freedom was defined back then. But it would be like associating the #MeToo movement with Key’s work and refusing to stand for the National Anthem until women stop being victimized by predatory sexual practices. Or kneeling until child abuse is virtually nonexistent. All noble pursuits having nothing to do with the lyrics in a song written almost 200 years ago or professional football players who claim the vicarious suffering of social oppression.
A Bigger Problem
While I wholly disagree with the notion of kneeling in protest during the National Anthem, there should be no mistaking the problem is bigger than kneeling or ignoring tradition while preparing to watch a game. The symptoms of the problem manifest in the form of prolonged family separations, multiple deployments, and transition stresses that the 1% who serve today have endured as the military falls short of recruiting goals, thus constantly flirting with the idea of lowering recruiting standards to make up for the loss — all while society bickers over what happens 10 minutes before kickoff.
The reality is respect for the flag and National Anthem transcends race, social standing, and gender today. The faces of the 1% are becoming increasingly diverse, as reflected in VA and military hospital rehabilitation wards, polytrauma units, and cemeteries. They didn’t fight, suffer loss, and die so that American citizens could be forcibly compelled to stand or hold off on their hotdog orders until the National Anthem finishes. They fought and died in order to keep patriotism alive. Real, selfless, consistent, genuine, sometimes painful patriotism, which is what Francis Scott Key imperfectly yet poignantly embodied in words that day.
Another lesser-known person also embodied patriotism at great personal sacrifice. William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for a heroic flag rescue. Carney, formerly enslaved before he escaped to the North and enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, became the first African American soldier to be given the nation’s highest honor. He earned it by taking the regiment’s flag from its fatally wounded bearer and continued advancing during his regiment’s assault on Fort Wagner in 1863.
Despite suffering wounds during the advance, he eventually returned to Union lines, proclaiming that his duty was to keep the flag from touching the ground during the battle. He was certainly not a highly paid athlete, and few reasonable people would blame him for denouncing the flag and what it stood for where his family, social standing, and opportunities were concerned in those times. Yet, he chose to stand for what it truly symbolized: his inner patriotism. That is how real patriotism is defined and the reason that standing up and for the flag matters.