Taking a Knee


The decision by some NFL players to join Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem generated a predictable outbreak of windbaggery from the White House. Along the way the president ripped the NFL for trying to make a violent, dangerous game marginally less violent and dangerous for those who play it. Ah, leadership.

Last year when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to call for something to be done about police violence against people of color and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, I questioned the effectiveness of using the anthem as a vehicle for social protest because this provides an opening for people like Donald Trump to make it about the anthem and patriotism instead of the issue. It also risks alienating some people might otherwise be receptive to the message.

The first amendment, not just any amendment, but the very first, protects freedom of religion, speech, and the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Each photo I have seen of players kneeling during the anthem shows men who are somber, thoughtful, respectful. They are not disrespecting the flag. They are calling on the nation to uphold the values and principles the flag represents.

Not everyone sees it this way.

A PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Friday reported the usual divide along partisan lines:

Nearly half — 48 percent — of U.S. adults said these demonstrations were a respectful way to draw attention to their concerns, while another 46 percent said the protests are disrespectful. The remaining 6 percent of Americans said they were unsure.

Along political lines, eight out of 10 Democrats said the protests are civil, while nine out of 10 Republicans disagreed. Like the country, people who identified as politically independent were also sharply divided.

Stark divisions also arose among respondents across different racial and ethnic groups. Three-quarters of African Americans said NFL player protests were respectful, while a majority of white Americans — 55 percent — said the demonstrations were disrespectful.

The question revealed generational divides, too. Two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 29 said the protests were civil; only 36 percent of those age 60 or older felt the same.

The findings are no surprise. The poll reflects a partisan divide that runs almost across the board. Where is any moderate center to be found? Does it make sense to speak of one nation in the face of such division?

Comments of Interest

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Following is the concluding paragraph of a column published in The Hill on September 26. The column is well worth reading in full.

As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the President to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick. (Michael Hayden: In Trump versus NFL, standing up for free speech)

Ezra Klein is Editor-at-Large and co-founder of Vox.com. Yesterday he subbed for Mark Shields on the Shields and Brooks segment of the PBS Newshour, where he did nothing to dispel my impression that he is one of the sharpest tacks around.

He [Trump] looks for these points of cultural conflict. The one thing that he is doing still that is responsive to his base, right, in a moment when they’re bringing a tax reform bill that doesn’t look good for that base, in a moment when the health care effort was incredibly unpopular among his own voters, as well as everyone else, he looks for these points of cultural conflict, because that at least is one place where he’s able to deliver.

He’s able to deliver on leading one side of a tribal war. And it’s not a good thing for the country. And it’s not a good thing for any of the folks involved. It’s probably not even long-term a very good thing for Donald Trump, but it is the one place where he can stand on firm ground and be assured of keeping his side coalesced.

Louis Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality. I do not go quite as far as Moore does on last week's demonstrations, but he has a point. There is not a doubt in my military mind, as an old college pal, a Vietnam vet, used to say, that NFL owners and officials will try to turn this into something vanilla. We will see what happens tomorrow.

But ahead of this past weekend’s games, a number of the same owners who have likely colluded to keep Kaepernick out of their league joined the athletes in their protest. To be clear, although they went to the field and linked arms, owners like Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, Arthur Blank, and Shahid Khan did not join the protests. They co-opted the protests and turned the day into a "mere picnic." The protests that started out as a demonstration against systemic racism turned into a pacified demonstration for free speech, patriotism, and unity. (The NFL has officially whitewashed Colin Kaepernick’s protest: The co-opting of protests against racism has a storied history in our country, Vox, September 28, 2017)

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David Matthews

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