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From the Whistleblower: Flags, Football, and Foolishness

The Supreme Court decision in 1989, Texas v. Johnson, proved to be quite controversial. After Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag outside Dallas City Hall, protesting the policies of President Reagan, he was fined and jailed. His appeal went all the way to the nation’s highest court. The central question rotated around the court’s interpretation of the First Amendment. Was flag burning protected under the right to free speech? The usual voting blocs of the court were uprooted as Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia, and Kennedy sided with Johnson. They decided that even though societal norms may not agree, flag desecration was still an action that the government could not disallow.

A couple decades later and respect for the American flag has come back to the center of attention. It has come back because of the highly covered shootings in Ferguson, the death of Tamir Rice, the shooting of Walter Scott and others. Accusations of police brutality by the African-American community led certain athletes to take matters into their own hands. In the NFL, the tradition of standing during the national anthem to respect the flag was suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was going relatively unnoticed throughout the start of the 2016 season. He had not played in the first couple of preseason games and his status on the roster was unknown. In those first two games, he decided to sit during the anthem, but it was not until the third game that he received attention. After being asked to explain his reasoning, he went on to talk about the issues the African-American community was facing with bad treatment and police brutality. He claimed that his protest was not about him, but it was about the people that were not rightly being treated. The values that the military fights for, such as liberty, freedom, and justice, in his opinion, were not being fulfilled.

He was not alone. His actions inspired his teammate Eric Reid, Seattle Seahawks safety, Jeremy Lane, and Denver Broncos linebacker, Brandon Marshall, to also kneel or sit during the anthem. The protest extended beyond football. U.S. women’s soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, decided to take a knee in support of the LGBTQIA community, standing in solidarity with Kaepernick. The U.S Soccer association was not happy with Rapinoe’s actions, releasing a statement designed to encourage players not to engage in such protests.

As the NFL season continued, the protests became more frequent as members of the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs, gathered together to either kneel, sit or raise their fists in protest. By the end of September, even the man of few words, former Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch, expressed his support for Kaepernick.

Although the NFL would deny it, the 2016 presidential election and the national anthem protests drove the ratings down for the games. Eventually as the protests either were accepted or dropped, the ratings began to climb again. The issue seemed to fade for a while, but question still remained. Should these players be using the national anthem and the flag as a means of displaying their protests? Or should the flag be sacred from such uses?

The reason for the protesting was really irrelevant. It is quite clear that the NFL, the NBA, and other sports organizations have no problem with their members engaging in protests and activism. How would these organizations and specifically the teams within them deal with their players making these decisions? What did the flag mean to these players? What should it mean to the men and women fighting for it?

As the discussion on national anthem protests heated up before the 2017 season, some NFL teams released statements on how they would treat these protests. Dallas Cowboys head coach, Jason Garrett came out against the protests, declaring the flag to be sacred, and that the organization was certainly not going to endorse the protests. Other organizations have released similar statements, while some have condoned the actions. The question still lingers. What is the right answer?

The brave men and women in the U.S. military should have the final say on this matter. They are the ones that must respect the flag and the anthem. They have no choice but to do that. Their actions determine whether or not that flag will be able to stay standing at the embassies and bases overseas, along with right here. The movie called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, released in 2016, was a chilling reminder of how the American flag is viewed overseas. Not just the flag, but the nation as a whole. The sight of the Islamic militants in that movie shooting holes in the flag at the U.S. embassy outpost in Libya is truly chilling. It should serve as a reminder of why we have the tradition of showing respect for the flag.

There is nothing preventing these athletes from talking about police brutality, LGBTQIA issues, and other activist concerns. Should they be allowed to use the American flag as a vehicle for expressing their points of view? Isn’t the whole point of the flag to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice made by others so that these athletes are able to express their opinions? Again, ultimately, it should the members of the military that have the final say on this dispute, but just as Texas v. Johnson may have allowed flag desecration, it does not mean that patriotic and respectful citizens should not be allowed to have an opinion on this matter of national pride.

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