I’ll start by stating the obvious: Professional athletes have a constitutional right to protest by refusing to stand during pre-game performances of our national anthem. That means they cannot be punished—by government, at least—for exercising their freedom of speech.
And to again state the obvious: America’s long and noble tradition of protesting racial injustice has made this country a much, much better place. Civil rights protests have brought this country a long way forward since that day when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Reasonable people can disagree about issues of racial equality and police brutality in America in 2017, but peaceful protest can and should be a part of that dialogue.
The problem is not that NFL players are protesting, or what they’re protesting. The problem is how they’re protesting. Because whether you burn the American flag, spit on it, or refuse to stand for it, you are communicating the same message: That flag, and the country it represents, are not worthy of your respect. You have a constitutional right to hold those beliefs, to express them, and to protest in support of them. And the rest of us have a constitutional right to express how offensive, wrongheaded, and morally incoherent your protest is.
Lest there be any doubt that the protestors are intending to disrespect our country, recall how the person who started this all, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, explained his decision last year to “take a knee” during the national anthem: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
I fully respect Kaepernick’s commitment to protest the oppression of African Americans and other people of color. Again, reasonable people can disagree about the nature and causes of the challenges faced by people of color in America today. But Kaepernick’s perspective deserves to be heard.
What I do not respect is Kaepernick’s lack of respect for America, which he freely admitted. I respect Kaepernick’s right to hold such views and express them, but am not obligated to respect the views themselves. The players now kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick are implicitly endorsing those views, and I and many other Americans find that offensive.
It is patriotic to try to correct America’s flaws through protest. But it is unpatriotic to suggest, as Kaepernick has, that America’s flaws make her unworthy of respect. Brave men and women have fought and died for our flag and what it represents: A constitutional republic that gives us the freedom to express ourselves and to work to improve our society through the democratic process. The process doesn’t always go our way, but patriotic Americans don’t stop respecting our country because our preferred candidate did not win the last election, or because longstanding problems in our society have still not been solved. Patriotic Americans use the gift that was bequeathed to us—our democratic system buttressed by constitutionally protected freedoms—to continue to work to improve our country.
The flag is the symbol that is supposed to bind us together: we may have different backgrounds and different perspectives, but we’re all Americans working in our own way to improve the society we share. Out of many, one. To disrespect the flag is to reject the notion that we’re all on the same team. The protestors are essentially saying: “That’s your flag, not mine, and I refuse to show it respect.”
Kaepernick and his fellow protestors are severely lacking in perspective. Every country has its flaws. But when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities, America does much better than the overwhelming majority of countries around the world. In large parts of the world, minorities, women and gays are brutalized both by official government policy and by virulent societal prejudice. Even in countries with longstanding democratic traditions, such as Western European nations, bigotry against minorities exists, by most accounts, at significantly higher levels than it does in the U.S.
Although our history will forever be stained by the fact that African slaves were brought here in chains, modern America is a place to which blacks and other people of color from around the world clamor to come voluntarily. Indian Americans are the highest earning ethnic group in America, including whites, and Asian Americans overall earn more than whites. Notwithstanding the narrative pushed by Kaepernick and other “social justice” advocates, America indeed remains the Land of Opportunity for many immigrant communities and people of color.
This is not to say that we should judge ourselves by the standards of the rest of the world, or that we should be satisfied or complacent about the state of race relations in the U.S. But at the very least, America should not be singled out for disrespect on the basis of flaws that are much worse in most of the rest of the world. Ironically, those who support the “take a knee” protests are those who are most likely to implore us to respect other cultures—including those of some of the most oppressive societies on earth. If we should respect other cultures—and I agree that we should—then we should also respect our own country in spite of its inevitable imperfections.
On Sunday, a record number of NFL players joined the “take a knee” protest. The most morally confused episode occurred in London, where the Jacksonville Jaguars played the Baltimore Ravens. American players from both teams kneeled during the “Star Spangled Banner,” but stood for the British national anthem. Britain is America’s special ally and should be proud of the great culture that it has developed over many centuries. But it takes a special ignorance of history to suggest, as the protestors did, that Old Glory is somehow more deserving of scorn than the Union Jack because of the oppression of people of color. For centuries, many societies around the world were subjugated by British colonialism. In fact, alert students of history may recall that we actually fought a war to get out from under the British flag. We didn’t fight the American Revolution so that our own people would stand for the British flag and kneel for the American one.
One son of immigrants, offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers, stood up for his country on Sunday. Although his team had voted to not take the field for the national anthem, the 6’9”, 320-pound lineman stood out there alone at attention, hand on his heart, while the anthem played. His own coach later criticized him for not following the wishes of his teammates. It’s not surprising that Villanueva would take such a courageous stand: The former Army Ranger served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star.
Brave soldiers like Villanueva were willing to give their lives to protect the right of his teammates to disrespect the flag—and the right of the rest of us to, with great sadness, change the channel on Sunday.
David B. Cohen formerly served as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs.