On Memorial Day, we gather to honor the nation’s fallen heroes from more than two centuries of warfare. At parades and other events, Americans will honor the flag and what it stands for: The unending fight for freedom and self-determination, the root cause of those wars in which they fought. For centuries, we shared this love of country and those who have preserved it by setting aside our differences long enough to celebrate as one people.
It is an ironic coincidence of timing that as we offer gratitude to those who serve and remember those who gave their lives, patriotism itself is at the forefront of a debate that involves football fields rather than battlefields. Thankfully, there will be no pro football games Monday, since that sport has found itself in the cross hairs of a divisive dispute.
It’s hard to empathize with an obscenely wealthy, powerful conglomerate like the National Football League, which rakes in billions from tickets, TV and merchandising. But the league had no good answer for the controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
On the one hand, NFL teams want to support their highly paid players, the reason fans buy tickets and watch on TV. But many of those paying customers are offended by the players’ show of defiance, leaving owners caught in the middle. Last week, they came up with a tepid compromise that would require players to stand for the anthem while on the field, but allow any who opt not to do so to remain off the field during the song. Violators could face discipline from their teams, which would in turn be fined by the league.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” and chance are that few, if any, will face penalties. This was a weak attempt to mollify both sides in a debate that goes beyond sports and reaches to the core of America’s disputes over race, culture and free speech. Those issues can’t be settled in a football game.
League owners are trying to regain control over a product they manage meticulously. With TV ratings on a steady decline and continued concerns over player safety dulling the game’s luster, they felt the need to act on their own behalf.
But suggestions by some, including the president, that the NFL fire players who refuse to stand for the anthem aren’t feasible. Forced patriotism isn’t true patriotism, and would only lead to more protests. The players are the product, and without their skills, there’s nothing to watch. You don’t rid yourself of a pest by burning down your house.
The real solution lies with players realizing the fans are the reason they have a game to play. Disrespecting the flag, the anthem and those who revere them spits in the face of many who provide their huge salaries.
They should also be aware of a fact those in more mundane professions already know: No one is being paid for their time in the office (or stadium) to share personal expressions of anything. The venue belongs to the employers, that time to the customers being served. People watch football to see the players play, not weigh in on politics or social issues. They’re entitled to their views in their own time, but not while wearing the teams’ uniforms.
Even if you believe the players have valid points on social injustice, there are better ways to address them. Some engage in community projects and volunteer to have an impact beyond personal statements. Speaking out as private citizens is their right, but doing so on the right platform would be more productive and persuasive than the empty gesture of a two-minute “hey, look at me” kneel.
Despite what some say, such as NFL players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith, this isn’t a First Amendment issue. We remind all, yet again, that freedom of speech means freedom of government prosecution for such speech: “Congress shall make no law.” Nothing in the Constitution protects us from the consequences of speech, certainly not in the workplace. If you wear a shirt with a swastika to work, you won’t get thrown into prison, but you might get fired.
Both sides need to remember the customers come first. The employee-employer relationship is a symbiotic one fueled by the mutual need to keep the business prosperous. The league and its players are bound together and should unite to address societal problems in a way that doesn’t alienate fans. If the league suffers, they sink together. No one will notice if someone kneels or stands in an empty stadium.
Though challenges to American sovereignty may seem ancient history to some, it’s still very real and emotional to those who have served alongside fallen warriors or whose loved ones were lost in war. Both the NFL and its players should get off their high horses and out of their silos and see how one set of ideals and actions may be embraced or rejected by others. That’s actually a good practice for us all to adopt.
It’s ironic this issue plays out in the backdrop of Memorial Day, when we honor those lost in warfare to preserve the liberty to speak our minds, even when doing so is unpopular. The flag that honors them symbolizes a nation forged from dissent against an autocratic authority.
This weekend, we pause to honor the men and women who gave their lives wearing the uniform of their country. Against that backdrop, the decisions made by men wearing the uniform of a football team seem trivial by comparison.
Surely a people and a nation as rich as ours can recognize that a love of country means working to make it better. That often requires seeing the world through the eyes of others and making the effort to understand.
We need the perspective of history to realize our freedoms are not guaranteed and have been fought for and won by the best America has to offer.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.