The past two weeks, President Donald Trump has shoved the National Football League and its players into the spotlight. That’s normally a place a private enterprise would love to be, but this president’s spotlight is often too hot and too harsh.
Trump’s comments about what should be done to any athlete using the national anthem as a protest platform — they should be out of a job, put decently — has been what many Americans have been talking about. But we should all consider whether sparking a futile debate was just what President Trump’s goal was all along. Discussing kneeling, the anthem, Black Lives Matter and the American military was a fake handoff — a reverse, a flea flicker, a Statue of Liberty, if you will. It was faux action on one part of the field meant to distract from the real action happening on the other side.
Do you remember that just recently 21 states learned their voting systems were hacked by Russians in the run-up to the 2016 election? That Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare failed for a third time? That almost all of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents remain without power?
By and large, we don’t, and we’re instead writing about the NFL and the American flag. Trump is a master media manipulator, and he has us chasing the rabbit again.
But while we’re on the subject, we do think the concept of patriotism is important, especially at a moment when many of our democratic institutions and ideals are shifting radically and our allegiances are under fire.
It is critical — now more than ever — to remember the ideals that made this a nation to be proud of, and what we must defend. The aspect of forced patriotism — you must stand, you must sing, you must remove your hat and hold your hand over your heart — are being vastly overlooked by the “patriot” crowd. It should be an honor to stand for the flag, not a requirement. It should not be a meaningless gesture, done without thought or purpose.
The places in the world where it is a mandatory and empty exercise are the very opposite of America.
The NFL has backed themselves into this tight spot. For decades, the league has (often cynically) worked to equate itself with America and the U.S. military. That includes flag-waving before, during and after games, military salutes, fly-overs and fatigue-clad military months.
Many other sporting events do it, too, from NASCAR races to Major League Baseball games with not only the anthem beforehand but “God Bless America” sung at many parks during the seventh-inning stretch.
This is all good for business: It helps ratings and helps the NFL ingratiate football as a nationwide endeavor — America’s sport. But it does, however, entangle a private enterprise with patriotism. And when an employee of the NFL wants to protest against police brutality, it gets tied up as an assault against America, our symbols and our military.
We love sports, and see their usefulness as a safe retreat from the complexities and divisions of everyday life. But the spotlight of politics is shining everywhere these days, and don’t be surprised if your industry, your union, your ethnicity, your religion, your family is soon labeled negatively by the president.
What then, is the patriotic response?