Winston Churchill once observed that everyone claims to support free speech, even though it is painfully obvious that they do no such thing. That’s certainly the case in contemporary politics. The notion of free speech currently held dear by a lot of prominent self-righteous gum flappers boils down to this: “I have the inviolate liberty to say and do what I want, but you better just shut your pie hole. Or else.”
Churchill being Churchill, he was a skosh more eloquent than I. What he actually said was: “Everyone is in favor of free speech … but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.” Well, we’ve had a week of free speech four-flushers positively vibrating with outrage because football players insist on deliberately disrespecting our flag, flouting our values, and insulting law enforcement officers and military veterans. What outrage do they commit to express such comprehensive contempt for all things American? They, um, silently take a knee during the national anthem.
Assuming a crouch while the notes of the sovereign hymnal hang in the air is seen by some as a grievous insult to the Republic and all it stands for. And while football players might be descending from the vertical quietly, the choleric response is rocketing skywards with a high-decibel roar. Many are now calling for sanctions, boycotts, and even pink slips — they actually want these individuals deprived of their employment because they sat down during a song. Chief among these, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is the president of the United States. Donald Trump is in high dudgeon over all this genuflecting on the gridiron, saying team owners should respond to such insolence by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.” It did not go unnoticed that his was a full-throated, no caveats denunciation of mostly black football players. There was none of the there’s-some-good-people-in-there equivocations bestowed upon the mayonnaise-hued tiki torch trust recently observed defending confederate statues and proposing a little light ethnic cleansing.
I’m not sure how silently planting a patella to convey a sincerely held view about racial inequity gets interpreted as a deliberate insult to the United States, the values it represents, and the people—especially in law enforcement and the military–who defend them. But so it goes. Some military and law enforcement veterans do seem to feel pretty sore about the whole deal. Others who wear, or have worn, a uniform seem to be saying, fair enough. First Amendment, land of the free and all that (I count myself among this latter group). I completely get disagreeing with the message, but responding to it with boiling outrage that Americans have the temerity to express a legitimate viewpoint and should be prevented or punished for doing so seems, well, kind of un-American.
And it’s worse than that. On some level, this whole debate is just silly. The message underlying the gesture has, at this point, largely been obscured. Egged on by our president, we’re now doing little more than playing nasty and vicious patriot games, groups at each other’s throats all because a few millionaires cop a squat during the jingoistic yodeling before a sporting event. It’s kinda surreal, and makes one wonder why America is so uniquely insistent on mandatory public professions of patriotism every time someone blows air into a leather bladder. Other countries manage to put on domestic athletic contests without national anthems, flags the size of Delaware, fighter jets, and sundry collective affirmations of national self-worth. Maybe we could follow their example and, you know, just play ball?
Fat chance. Poseur patriots are clamoring for politics to be taken out of the game, but certainly not all the symbolism about the polity. They want to keep the anthem and flag waving and its opportunities to deliver the shut-your-gob treatment to those who refuse to abide by the deferential norm. Sure, football players should be free to express a viewpoint, but not actually on a football field. They should do it outside the stadium on their own time. Hmmm. Well, I could be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure if jocks all over the country took to prostrating themselves alone in their kitchens it wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Tellingly, very few of those now taking umbrage at the knee droppers also seem to get huffy about players shoving their beliefs in our face when they credit a deity for the touchdown, gather for a prayer circle after the game, or pull a Tebow on national television. The whole brouhaha seems less about players expressing a viewpoint to a sporting audience, than expressing a viewpoint that makes a big chunk of that audience uncomfortable.
Football players quietly refusing to place themselves in the upright and fully locked position during the national anthem represents no serious threat to the Republic. When people in high office stoke outrage at such expression, and explicitly call for those who articulate it to be coerced into censoring that expression—to threaten them with losing their livelihoods—well, now we are talking some measure of peril. Perhaps those screaming the loudest about American values should remember freedom of expression is one the most important of those values—even, and especially, when it is done in a place and a manner that some take offense to.