Theodore Roosevelt declared in a speech in 1907 that an American can be defined as someone who is ‘in every facet an American, and nothing but an American’, with sole loyalty to ‘the American flag’ and ‘the American people’. The national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner, is undoubtedly a potent symbol of what it means to be American. Written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, the poem that later became the national anthem illustrates American perseverance in the face of Britain’s relentless naval bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The national anthem thus serves as a reminder of how the American nation had to be fought for, which also evokes the experience of the Revolutionary War. It is therefore a powerful representation of the American national character – one that emphasizes such values as liberty, valor, and patriotism.
203 years on, much of American news media is dominated by reports on how numerous National Football League (NFL) players have been kneeling before football games, as the national anthem is played, initially presented as an apparent protest of ‘racial inequality’ in the United States. This phenomenon is one that is most curious. It is important to first emphasize that NFL players certainly have a constitutional right to protest the national anthem, or any other aspect of American society that is not agreeable to them – it would defy the very American values this article seeks to defend to suggest otherwise. By the same token, however, it is also the constitutional right and national duty of Americans to highlight the sheer preposterousness of this wave of protests.
The athlete who first knelt during the national anthem and thus initiated this decidedly anti-American movement, Colin Kaepernick, earned $10.4 million in 2015 playing for the San Francisco 49ers, as well as an additional $1.65 million in bonuses. Other players who were influenced by Kaepernick’s actions have similar salaries. For example, the Marcus Peters’ contract with the Kansas City Chiefs is worth just over $9.5 million dollars, yet he conspicuously raised his fist, in a gesture associated frequently with white and black supremacists and socialists, as the national anthem was played during a game against the San Diego Chargers in September 2016.
This calls into question the legitimacy of these protests, as well as the real reason why so many athletes are participating in them. The athletes who refuse to stand during the national anthem are clearly not victims of the racial inequality they claim to stand against, as they make over 16 times in a month what the average American does in a year. Furthermore, by disrespecting the national anthem and therefore the American nation as they are, and even performing extremist gestures as in the case of Peters, they are asserting the primacy of their political views over their national identity. Although an argument can be made to suggest that these million dollar athletes are attempting to serve as self-appointed spokespeople for black communities in the United States who certainly have more difficulty in many aspects of life due to racial prejudice than their white counterparts, it is crucial to acknowledge that a few extremely wealthy NFL players kneeling during the national anthem cannot feasibly make life better for destitute black communities across the United States. Not only do such protests achieve no discernibly positive result for African-Americans, they create agitation and resentment towards these anti-American athletes and those who agree with their actions, which merely divides the United States. The raised fist, which has since been imitated by other players including the Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, is of particular issue; it is a favorite symbol of resolutely un-American ideological traditions such as racial supremacy and socialism.
The militant hysteria triggered by these protests on both sides of the divide indicate that American identity as a whole has become deeply fractured. Rather than maintaining loyalty to the United States of America over all else, Americans now seem to be more concerned with their allegiance to their ideological camps, which indicates that the hyper-partisanship fostered by the Obama administration has come to a head. Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ wide-receiver Mike Evans stated in a November 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated that he had sat while the national anthem was being played during a game on November 13th to protest the election of Donald Trump.
Following Trump’s inflammatory remarks towards the protesters in September this year, around 200 players refused to stand for the national anthem, to protest Trump’s remarks and more broadly the policies of his administration. The somber implication of this is that some Americans’ loyalty to the United States depends on who holds office, and that if it is somebody they are not necessarily pleased with, they will perform gestures that insult the American national anthem, flag, and the American nation which so many veterans abroad who put their lives on the line to defend; which demonstrates a preference for partisanship above patriotism.
The accusation of hyper-partisanship must also be directed at the Trump administration and its apologists. Trump and many of his supporters have called for players who refuse to stand to be fired from the NFL essentially for exercising a constitutional right covered under the First Amendment. Irrespective of how disrespectful and anti-American the athletes’ actions are, they are protected under the Constitution of the United States, which should surely be paramount. Yet Trump has expressed crassly his desire for the NFL to sever its ties with the ‘son[s] of…bitch[es]’ who are exercising their constitutional rights on the field before football matches. The personal issue Trump takes with these players is likely due to the fact that many of them are kneeling to protest his policies, and the fact that Trump and his supporters advocate for the disrespectful NFL players to be fired for exercising a constitutional right rather than simply boycotting the NFL suggests that they too value partisanship more than they value American ideals.
Whether one agrees with these protests or not, it is clear that they are further dividing an already tribalistic country. The NFL players who disrespect their anthem, their flag, and their country have started a dangerous social movement that will only exacerbate the elevated partisanship that has plagued America since the Obama administration. Trump’s comparably un-American reaction has only served to add momentum to this movement, making it clear that there are severe divides in American society that need to be addressed urgently. It is difficult to speculate on where exactly these increasingly significant manifestations of hyper-partisanship will take the United States, but it can be assumed with confidence that America’s future will not be bright.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.
JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS
ROBERT HANASHIRO / USA TODAY SPORTS / REUTERS
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