By Ken Reed

There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of commentary in recent days regarding the kneeling for the national anthem issue.

I’ve read and heard a variety of perspectives. However, the thoughts of three people really stood out to me.

First, is the statement from Marie Tillman, Pat Tillman’s widow. Pat Tillman is the NFL player who stopped playing football in his prime in order to join the U.S. Army in 2002. President Trump tweeted a picture of Tillman in his military uniform, along with his call for NFL players to stand during the national anthem and for fans to boycott the league.

Marie Tillman said Pat’s service should “never be politicized in a way that divides us.” She went further by saying:

“The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views.”

The next response to the anthem controversy that moved me came from Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. Kerr shared his thoughts with Sports Illustrated.

“[W]e get Trump’s comments over the weekend about NFL players, calling them ‘sons of bitches’ for kneeling during the anthem,” said Kerr.

“Those just crushed me. Crushed me. Just think about what those players are protesting. They’re protesting excessive police violence and racial inequality. Those are really good things to fight against. And they’re doing it in a nonviolent way. Which is everything that Martin Luther King preached, right? A lot of American military members will tell you that the right to free speech is exactly what they fight for. And it’s just really, really upsetting that the leader of our country is calling for these players to be ‘fired.’”

The flag is a symbol that represents American ideals, none more so than the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment. Thousands of men and women have died fighting for the ideals represented by the American flag. The fact that football players have the right to peacefully protest social injustices in the United States is a result of the sacrifices numerous military veterans have made throughout our country’s history.

The president of the United States — as the leader of all Americans — swears to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Trump, via his incessant attacks on both free speech and the free press is hurting our country and the ideals it was founded on. In effect, he’s damaging our Constitution, not protecting it.

I was also moved by the words of the first Major League Baseball player to kneel for the national anthem, Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A’s. Maxwell, the son of a white mother and African-American father, first explained to A’s ownership and management, and his teammates, what he was about to do and why. He wanted them to know that in no way were his actions designed to disrespect the flag, the military or those who have served.

“I was staring directly into the flag (while kneeling with his hand over his heart) because this is my country,” said Maxwell.

“My dad fought for this country. My grandfather fought for this country. I got a lot of feedback from them, and I’m standing up for my rights. This isn’t old America. People shouldn’t be treated unequally because of the color of their skin … I’m pretty sure people who died for this country fought so I could do this.”

“This is beyond race. This is about our president speaking out in a vulgar, negative way against people exercising their rights in a peaceful manner. It’s about mankind. To call people who are peacefully protesting sons of bitches? He feels like he’s untouchable.”

Maxwell said that freedom of speech is a right that nobody, least of all the president, should infringe.

Maxwell received strong support from his teammates, most notably Mark Canha, a white man who stood next to Maxwell and put his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder. The picture is reminiscent of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson, when Robinson was integrating Major League Baseball.

“I’m right on board with it,” said Canha.

“I think if we’re not asking questions at all times in this country and we’re not striving for it … the fact that you’re speaking out and expressing how you feel is because you love the country. It’s a combined effort to raise this country up to where we know it can be.”

Here’s the interesting thing: A lot of Americans think people like Bruce Maxwell are unpatriotic. That they’re traitors. The reality is that line of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. People that have the courage to step forward and express their thoughts about how the country could be better, are actually more patriotic than those who remain safely anonymous in the crowd.

As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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