Editorial: NFL anthem rule is unpatriotic

Peaceful protests like kneeling during the national anthem showcase America’s most fundamental freedoms

NFL owners’ effort, backed by President Donald Trump, to force players to stand for the national anthem is both foolish and unpatriotic.

Last week, NFL owners adopted a policy in which teams can be fined if players kneel or engage in any other form of protest during the playing of the anthem. Players can choose to stay in the locker room for the anthem, but if they come onto the field, they must stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.

The NFL’s policy is a reaction to the trend, started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, of players kneeling during the national anthem as a means of bringing attention to racial injustice in general and specifically the deaths of black males in interactions with police.

Kneeling has created deep division nationwide; a division that Trump has happily stoked.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,'” Trump said while speaking at a rally in Alabama in September 2017.

Asked last week about the new NFL policy, Trump went further.

“You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News. “Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”

To be clear, NFL owners have the right to establish standards of conduct for their employees, including rules to prevent protests during the national anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the goal of the new rule is to “have people to be respectful of the national anthem.”

But there is an overwhelmingly racial tone to the NFL’s stance. The majority of NFL players — about 68 percent — are black. The majority of the NFL’s audience — about 77 percent — is white. NFL owners, also overwhelmingly white, are fearful that white audiences will be turned off by black players peacefully protesting racial injustice, especially with a president eager to drive that cultural wedge wider by suggesting protesting players are disrespecting the anthem, the American flag and the military.

The problem is Trump couldn’t be more wrong.

Peaceful protests like those demonstrated by the NFL players are a perfect expression of the very freedoms the military has fought to defend and the American flag represents. Certainly kneeling to raise awareness of injustice is a far better representation of American democracy than Trump’s autocratic suggestion that protesters be thrown out of the country.

NFL owners have entertainment businesses to run, and they’re understandably averse to anything that they fear might damage the product. But their approach sells their players and their audience short by assuming those who disagree with kneeling during the anthem don’t respect the protesters’ right to do so.

That’s what the anthem promises — freedom, symbolized by the flag that was, and is, still there.

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