A Conversation About Discrimination, Protest, and Privilege
Forty-Eight Hours of Conflict Between the NFL and the Commander-In-Chief
SPOILER ALERT: They’re Both Saying The Same Thing
What is the one moment in this life that is going to define you? What is going to be your takeaway from this life?
Is it going to be an experience of giving selflessly to a cause greater than yourself, knowing that you have left this place a little better than it was before you came here?
Or is it going to be some fake bullshit that leaves you bitter and angry, arguing with someone over an issue that you haven’t even taken the time to really understand?
The past 48 hours have been enlightening, as I have watched the drama unfold over a polarizing issue that, at the heart of the matter, is quite simple.
For the first day in weeks, this past Sunday, I did not turn on the television or look at social media or even pick up a device to check the news. Monday morning, when I booted up all of my electronics to begin working, I was inundated with news that the NFL and President Trump were essentially at war with each other based on a series of comments the President made two days prior to “the incident.”
As I scoured my usual news sources to figure out what had happened, I discovered that on Friday, the President, at a rally for a Republican Senator in Alabama, criticized the National Football League and team owners for tolerating players who disrespect our country by kneeling during the National Anthem prior to football games. In his descent from his message of support for the Senator, he went on to criticize the NFL and stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Trump’s comments, seemingly coming out of left field, (and yes, I know I am mixing my sports), were irrelevant to the message he was in Alabama to convey. Yet, his comments demonstrate that there is so much more in this whole debate about football players and the National Anthem than what started as someone taking a knee over a year ago as a social protest in a time of great national unrest.
I have grown tired of the redundancy of the arguments I have heard over the past year. I decided to call a friend of mine, an incredibly intelligent and outspoken man whose opinion I respect and who I know will be a straight shooter and not take offense to my pointed questions as I try to discern exactly what in the hell is happening to our country.* He played football for the United States Military Academy (yes, that would be West Point, or as my son calls it, “The Army College”), who served in our nation’s military, and who also happens to be a Black Conservative man. He did not, however, vote for our current President because he felt another candidate would do a better job. When E. Lee Smith picked up the phone as I rang him from across the country, his jovial voice put a smile on my face.
“Alright, sister. I know this has got to be a hot one if you’re calling me and promising me anonymity to talk about something. Hit me with it,” he said.
I gave him a brief summary of what was brewing in my head and told him I wanted to write an article from differing viewpoints regarding the current NFL controversy vis a vis the National Anthem and the perceived affront to the military, given his prior military service, his prior football career, and his position as a successful African American entrepreneur.
“I guess we should start with where you stand, as a Veteran, a former member of the U.S. Army, a West Point football player, and a black man, on the controversy that started last year when Colin Kaepernick decided to protest social injustices by kneeling at a pregame during the National Anthem. What are your thoughts on what he did and subsequently, your thoughts on what has snowballed into the mass protest of this past Sunday?”
“I’m really glad you asked that because I believe that as a Soldier, I fought for everyone’s freedom to speak out for what they believe in, even if I disagree with them. He can take a knee and I’m good with it. In my opinion, you should be thankful as a Soldier that he has the right to express himself and to use his position as a platform to draw attention to an issue that is dividing our country. That’s why I sacrificed. So he can do that right there.”
Another Army Veteran who I spoke with, who also asked to remain anonymous, agreed with Smith, stating, “I agree that people have lost sight of the original reason Kaepernick began his protest. It was not against the military. It was against social injustices and the mistreatment of minorities.”
I asked that particular veteran why he chose the word “mistreatment” instead of “unequal” treatment, and he responded, “I think as soon as you use the word ‘unequal’ treatment, certain people have an automatic response that causes their defense mechanisms to come up.”
When interviewed as to his reason for taking a knee, Kaepernick told reporters, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick’s comments and actions came on the heels of several incidents of civil unrest following riots and shootings in cities across the United States and the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement. The backlash towards his actions was large and loud. I wrote an article at that time condemning his actions as disrespectful to the military and to those who defend our freedoms and protect our lives on a daily basis. Many others had similar sentiments to mine, while others agreed with him.
Kaepernick knew that what he was doing would likely come with consequences. “This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Since then, players of different teams in the NFL, the NBA, and most recently in the MLB have followed Kaepernick’s lead, making similar peaceful protests against social injustices and inequalities in America.
This past Sunday, however, became the penultimate protest as whole teams knelt during the Anthem, or in some instances, stayed in the locker rooms until the Anthem was finished. The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans chose to stay in their locker rooms in Nashville until the Anthem was over, as did the Pittsburgh Steelers, while playing away in Chicago. Several coaches even joined in on the protests in solidarity with their teams.
When I asked Smith why he thought what began as a peaceful protest has turned into a nationwide controversy, he had several insights on the matter.
“Everybody wants to politicize and take a polarizing viewpoint on an issue that, when it comes down to the heart of the matter, is quite simply the same issue from all sides,” he began. “We see this white backlash – people are upset because this black athlete has disrespected the flag and the anthem, but they don’t stop to listen to his explanation for why he did what he did.”
I stopped him at that point, being a white woman, and said, “Ok, Lee, I have an issue with the term ‘white backlash’ as you just used it. You’ve just clumped all white people together the way that you’re saying that all white people bundle up people of color into the same group and assume that we are all the same and that we all have the same point of view. At one point, women were considered chattel, just as African American slaves were. We were traded with a dowry, usually property or livestock, to be married off to men, without a say if we wanted to marry that man or not. We did not have the right to vote either. So, as a white woman, even though I have not been personally subjected to those laws, my ancestors were. Yet, I don’t protest every time a woman is treated unfairly.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Let me explain what I mean, and you know that I’m a ‘tell it like it is’ kind of guy and I think that’s why you wanted to talk to me – you knew that I would give you straight answers and we could have a respectful discourse about a very sensitive issue.
“What I am referring to when I say ‘white backlash’ is this: I have many white friends. When I post something or say something that is controversial or speaks of social injustice or disparity, most of my white friends don’t say, ‘Why do you feel this way?’ So, we end up talking past each other because we talk to speak and not to listen.”
When I broached the issue of what the President stated regarding the NFL on Friday in Alabama, Smith stated, “These Trump supporters who come out in droves to these rallies and cheer him on, I don’t get it. I am a fan of the President of the United States of America. I support the office and I respect the office and I defended that office. If you fuck up? I don’t care if you are White, Black, Hindu, Muslim, whatever, you fucked up. But this guy gets a free pass. He can bash Kaepernick and other NFL players who peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights and he has no idea what he is talking about. When you look back to when these ‘protests’ first began last year, President Obama spoke about how Kap handled the issue and then you look at what Trump said, and you have to ask yourself who truly caused a greater divide in our country?”
Last year, after Kaepernick’s first public protest, President Obama addressed the nation and stated, regarding Kaepernick’s protest, “I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
In a later statement, Obama continued by explaining, “I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions on how they want to express their concerns,” he said. “The test of our fidelity to our Constitution, to freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. We fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with, but that’s what freedom means in this country.”
Smith, in agreeing with Obama’s plea for discourse on sensitive matters stated that the people that infuriate him are the “people who won’t get outside their comfort zone or take their blinders off. It infuriates me that people refuse to walk ten feet in someone else’s shoes.”
“But, Lee,” I asked, “what about the NFL folks or supporters who haven’t taken 10 steps in a pair of combat boots in the middle of an Iraqi desert or in Afghanistan to say they can identify with what our military members or their family members feel when they see football players, making millions of dollars, choosing the National Anthem as their platform to protest police brutality?”
“That’s fair, too, and both sides are upset, but again, we’re just talking about two sides of the same coin. In and of itself, taking a knee during the national anthem isn’t about the Veterans or the military. It’s about how we need to do better in America. We need a change. That’s what Kap said last year. That was the platform that Trump ran on. They’re both saying the same thing, but the only thing that is changing is that we are becoming a more divided country instead of a more cohesive one. It has gotten to the point where we cannot have a civil discourse about anything in this country.”
Essentially, we have developed large pockets of groupthink and people are not engaging in independent critical thinking. As Seneca once stated with respect to groupthink when it was first developed as a psychological theory, “For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgment in the matter of living, but always a blind trust and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction.”
“That’s deep,” Smith said as I read him the quote I found, “but accurate. People want to be spoon-fed and don’t want to research. They don’t want to think for themselves anymore. I have this friend who actually said to me, ‘I don’t want to think about it. I just want someone tell me what to think and what to do.’ Can you believe that?”
Sadly, groupthink has become the way of much of our nation.
I brought up the Black Lives Matter movement and asked Smith his thoughts about the group in relation to its rising in correlation to the police shootings and rioting following Ferguson, Dallas, and New Orleans, among other incidents in the past couple of years.
“Why is Black Lives Matter necessary?” I asked him. “I remember when Sheppard Smith was interviewing an African American Sheriff on Fox News and the sheriff stated that ‘all lives matter.’ Shep went off the hook on him, as though he was mad as the Hatter for daring to state that all lives matter. Why such an emphasis on the BLM movement? Doesn’t that cause more discord and divisiveness than unity?”
After pausing for a brief second, my friend stated, “The best way I can explain it to you is to use this illustration. Next month, in October, we will see pink ribbons everywhere for Breast Cancer Awareness month. The NFL even puts on their pink gloves and shoes in support of Breast Cancer Awareness. Pink ribbons will be worn to recognize survivors as well as those who lost their battle to the disease. Now, no one is saying that lymphoma doesn’t matter or that lung cancer doesn’t matter. We are just drawing attention to a particular cause that many people find to be particularly important. The Black Lives Matter movement is much the same. In fact, you don’t have to be black to become a part of the movement. The movement was created to bring attention to the issue that there is still mistreatment of minorities, specifically black minorities in this country. Is it as open and pervasive as it was 100 years ago? No. Does it still exist? Absolutely.”
Finally, a missing piece that I had been searching for had been handed to me.
“You were a history major, right?” Smith asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“What is history?” he asked.
“That’s simple,” I stated. “History is the winner’s version of the facts. The winners control what history is reported to be. It’s like George Orwell said in ‘1984,’ ‘We do not merely destroy our enemies. We change them.’”
I could almost hear my friend nodding across the phone line. “If you understand that, you can understand the frustration of many African Americans.”
“Let me ask you this,” I posited. “Do you think we should even be playing the National Anthem at sporting events? It was written by Francis Scott Key after his release from being held captive aboard a British Warship during the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. Initially titled, ‘In Defence of Fort McHenry,’ ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ was intended to be sung to the tune of a song called “To Anacreon In Heaven.” It did not officially become our national anthem until 1931. We did not even begin playing it during major league sporting events on a regular basis until sometime during World War II. So, it has not always been traditionally played, but once we were attacked during the Second World War, we began playing it to show respect and support of our nation and the men and women who defend it. Should we go back to the days of not playing it?”
“I hope we continue the tradition and that we can get by this.” Smith countered. “Do you know that during my entire four years of playing football at West Point, the United States Military Academy, not one time did I stand at attention for the National Anthem. Not once. Our team stayed in the locker room because the coaches wanted us focused on the game. That also happens to be the last time we beat Navy four years in a row,” he chuckled at the age-old rivalry.
“But in all seriousness,” he said, “Free speech is not a one-way street. It goes two ways. You can say what you feel and think, within the bounds of the law, but you are not free from the consequences of your actions. As we both stated, many people are limited in their critical thinking capability, as displayed this past weekend. Many NFL teams and players demonstrated NFL groupthink this past weekend because they did not know what else to do in response to Trump’s inflammatory comments.”
“There are bad apples in every part of society,” I commented. “From police officers to judges to military to any given race or sect of society. How do we even begin to heal the rift we have created as a society?”
“You have to take that bad apple out before it destroys the whole bunch,” Smith said. “I don’t mean you go kill them. I mean black people have to start holding black people accountable. There’s this misnomer that snitches get stitches. If we don’t start weeding out the problems, we’ll never get better.”
The mainstream media also provides a hurdle that makes it difficult for an instant gratification society to engage in critical thinking.
“Nobody does their own research anymore. Basically, with the news, and I mean on both sides, what we get are photographs with commentary by people who are not properly informed and who are not able to apply critical thinking skills to a given topic.” Smith stated in response to my observation regarding current reporting by major news networks.
The original flag that was flown over Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key wrote about now resides in the Smithsonian National American History Museum, after years of preservation and restoration projects.
“The Star-Spangled Banner resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons,” said Kathleen Kendrick, curator for the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project. “It’s exciting to realize that you’re looking at the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814. But the Star-Spangled Banner is more than an artifact—it’s also a national symbol. It evokes powerful emotions and ideas about what it means to be an American.”
Having sat in the museum this past summer where Old Glory is on display, and having stared at it for almost an hour one hot summer afternoon, I looked up the history of the flag, because I am a history buff. It was one of the largest American flags to ever be commissioned, at the dimensions of 30×42 feet with 15 stars and 15 stripes to represent each state.
Knowing I was looking at the very same flag that Key looked at while he came up with the four verses that comprise “The Star Spangled Banner,” I was awestruck as to everything it stands for, especially for the freedoms so many have fought for us to have, many having paid the ultimate price for doing so.
Whether you fall on the side of supporting the NFL and the protesters or whether you find their forum to be inappropriate, we all need to be able to have intelligent, rational discourse on the topic. Small acts, such as beginning to have rational, intelligent discussions, such as I had with my friend, are the beginnings of larger, grander scale actions that when pieced together, can change the world.
While certainly not a political revolutionary, Jim Morrison was a revolutionary in his own right when he said, “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
Until we can change ourselves and until we can begin to walk in each other’s shoes, we will continue to spiral backward from any progress we have made in human rights and civility. President Lincoln said it best when he spoke the words, “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.”
Moreover, as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We all just need to stop and listen. Only then will we realize that we are all on the same side. We all want equality and justice for all. Some people are just more eloquent at demonstrating this desire than others.
The history of freedom is founded in resistance and protest. Freedom is fought for because of a desire to change the status quo. Without protest, without intellectual discourse, and without working together to understand each other, we will not truly know freedom.
To that end, I have collaborated with a friend and designed a line of merchandise to support equality which is now available to the public. You can email me or visit Down The Hole and privately message me there to order any of this line. Twenty-five percent of the profits will be donated to the ACLU to support their mission of advocating for the civil liberties of all who are mistreated under the laws of the United States. To see their charity rating profile, please visit Charity Navigator and I think you will be impressed to see that they are, in fact, using the majority of their donations to support their cause and not for overhead for executives.
*Because my friend is a successful businessman and wants to keep his job, I have promised to protect his identity for the purpose of this article, so the name I use for him is not his real name.