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March 18, 2019

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By taking a knee, NFL players stand up for freedom of expression


Stephen Brashear / AP

In this Sept. 11, 2017, photo, from left, Miami Dolphins’ Jelani Jenkins, Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, and Kenny Stills kneel during the singing of the national anthem before a game against the Seahawks in Seattle.

NFL players enjoy a great deal of admiration, but none deserve it more than those who are maintaining the sideline protests that began two seasons ago in the league.

Despite an enormous amount of criticism from fans who have misconstrued the purpose of the protests, the players have stuck to their principles and continued to conduct themselves with quiet dignity and grace. In doing so, they pay tribute to one of the most treasured American freedoms — the freedom of expression.

As a new season gets underway, it’s important to note once again why the protests are being conducted. It’s not, as some believe, to show disrespect to the national anthem or the American flag, nor is it to insult members of the armed services or the nation’s veterans.

It’s to call attention to what they see as systematic mistreatment of people of color, including improper use of force against black Americans by predominantly white police departments.

Donald Trump and others would love for Americans to think otherwise. Trump, who once went so far to say that the players perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country, tweeted last week that NFL players “should be standing proudly” during the anthem and should be suspended without pay if they don’t.

But to repeat, this isn’t about the song. It isn’t about the flag. It’s to exercise the precious right of expression in hopes of righting wrongs and making the country a more fair, just and equitable place.

Many people get that, including some veterans.

Take Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both of her legs during the Iraq War when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. This past May, Duckworth tweeted a message of support to the players along with a photo of herself standing on her prosthetic legs.

“One day, our nation’s flag will drape my coffin, just as it did my Dad’s and will my husband’s and brother’s,” the message said. “I will always stand on these legs for the flag and anthem, but it was ALSO my honor to defend people’s right to free speech including those who choose to #TakeAKnee to express outrage at the glaring disparity in how Americans of different races are treated.”

Other veterans have also encouraged Americans to recognize the protests as they were intended. In an op-ed for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., U.S. Navy veteran and North Carolina State professor Rupert Nacoste wrote:

“Our current president and others seem to think that I served in the U.S. Navy to honor the flag and a song. Don’t be ridiculous. I served our country to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Without the U.S. Constitution, both the national anthem and the flag are meaningless.

“I was out there to help ensure that any American citizen can raise their voice in peaceful protest, ‘to petition the government for a redress of grievances,’ however the citizen sees fit: kneeling during the national anthem, or raising a fist to the sounds of that anthem.”

Then there’s this comment, from Air Force veteran Benjamin L. Corey in a blog on “Instead of disrespected, I feel my sacrifice deeply honored every single time I see a football player take a knee — because that represents the freedom of speech and expression that I gave so much of myself to uphold. In fact, nothing honors my sacrifice more than the public exercise of these core freedoms.”

Trump, in continuing to bash the players and threaten their livelihood, is acting dishonorably. Frankly, he doesn’t have the right to tell anyone to stand up after he, figuratively speaking, kneeled before Vladimir Putin in Helsinki as the world watched in shock. Until Trump stands proudly and defiantly for America in the face of the nation’s chief adversary, he has no standing to lecture anyone about standing proudly for the anthem.

These players deserve better treatment. With their nonviolent, nonthreatening protests, they’re carrying on the honored tradition of Americans who exercised their freedoms to fight for such causes as the abolishment of slavery and the adoption of civil rights.

Americans may differ in how we feel about the protests, which is natural in a nation where we’re free to express our opinions.

But let’s be abundantly clear on one thing: The players are acting in support of a just cause, not out of spite for the flag or the national anthem or anyone connected with the armed services. And they have every right to express themselves.