Learning that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had refused to stand for the National Anthem reminded me of the one time I sat down for social justice.
Kaepernick said he was protesting oppression of black people in the United States. His NFL employer, perhaps taking into account the liberal politics in Moscow on the Pacific, issued a grown-up statement: “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
It was a brave stand in a league where standing up for America is just good business. A report by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, found that the Pentagon paid $9 million to sports franchises between 2012 and 2015. That enormous flag you see covering the field before a game may have been paid for by the government.
Reaction to Kaepernick’s heresy was swift and widespread. Some 49ers fans burned Kaepernick’s jersey. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick move to a country more to his liking.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin went online to say, “Let’s sack this ungrateful punk. … On behalf of every Vet I’m privileged to know: GET THE HELL OUT.”
Some said that a human being as richly rewarded as an NFL quarterback has no business protesting. If Kaepernick were living in rags on the street, they would have said that until he made something of himself, he had no business protesting. Science has failed to uncover the income range at which protest is acceptable.
Pushback also came from the other direction.
One online commenter wrote: “You burn Kaepernick’s shirt because he doesn’t believe America is great right now. Yet you celebrate a presidential candidate whose slogan is literally: America is not great.”
Jon Schwarz at the Intercept pointed out that the “Star-Spangled Banner” itself isn’t free of racial antagonism. Part of the third verse that we never sing goes, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” It’s a reference to the failure of British efforts during the War of 1812 to get American slaves to overthrow their white masters.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, an NFL quarterback, so my own quiet protest aroused little notice. I was a 20-year-old specialist four in the Army. I had completed language training in California in 1971 and was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, for radio training before being shipped to Germany.
Just about the only thing I remember from radio school was what AM and FM mean. Thanks, taxpayers.
One weekend I visited an old buddy of mine at Abilene Christian College before it graduated to a university. He set me up with a blind date, and we all went to an ACC football game.
I say he was a buddy, but he was more than that. We both came of age in the same fundamentalist church. On Sundays, we took turns preaching at Fordtran Church of Christ. We discussed the finer points of theology until late in the night.
But the Army was changing me. I had heard foul words I didn’t know existed. Those late-night bull sessions had turned from theology to the politics and morality of the Vietnam War—not just whether we should be there, but whether we were even fighting on the right side.
Although nobody had easier military duty than I did, I hated the Army, with its arbitrary draft and all of its rules and uniforms and minor tyrannies. And I kept asking, if my fundamentalist church gave me no guidance on the most significant moral issue of the day, then what good was it?
It was a blistering Texas afternoon. Within five minutes after taking a shower at my pal’s house, I felt as sweaty and grimy as I had before I started. But the evening cooled off nicely, and it was a pleasant enough game—right until halftime.
That’s when the Christian home team turned the halftime show into a full-scale patriotic display, with flags waving, bands playing, choirs singing, and all capped by an exhortation to everyone to rise for the National Anthem.
And I couldn’t do it. Not that day, not for that church, not during that war. The stadium burst into patriotic fervor as I sat silently and unbearably alone.
The result? Nothing, really. My commanding officer probably would have given me hell if he had known, but news traveled slowly between Abilene and San Angelo in those days. My buddy probably didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to call me out. The blind date and I never hit it off, but that wasn’t going to happen anyway.
And I never felt the urge to protest again. I got my honorable discharge and Good Conduct Medal. In the drug-hazed days when I was getting over the Army, I used to celebrate the National Anthem before televised baseball games by lighting a marijuana cigarette. The ritual may have been ironic, but I meant no disrespect.
Now I stand cheerfully for the anthem at Mustang games, although I never sing—no one’s patriotism should have to overcome the painful threat to liberty of hearing my voice.
I do sometimes think back on that much younger version of me and wonder what I learned from all of that. Maybe it was this: When I see protesters today, I nearly always root for them, no matter how ridiculous their cause.
And I have learned that if my military service had any purpose, it was to protect the freedom of guys like Kaepernick to do whatever they think is right.
Sometimes I think that evening in Abilene was the most patriotic day of my life.