A collage of a photo of Colin Kaepernick kneeling before a football game and the NFL logo crossed out.


Who Owns American Patriotism?

Some NFL fans are threatening to boycott in response to players kneeling in protest during the National Anthem while others threaten to boycott if Colin Kaepernik isn't signed. It's the latest battle over who gets to define what is "unAmerican."

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Over the past few days, I have seen grumblings from many white men online that they plan to boycott the NFL over black players peacefully protesting during the National Anthem.

It’s the latest example of conservative white men telling us what is and isn’t American, and that it is distinctly “un-American” to criticize any of our most cherished symbols. I call bullshit. I am a white male, a lifelong NFL fan, and a military veteran, and I have a few things to say about this trend.

I served this country specifically in defense of the rights enumerated in our Constitution. I served specifically so that Americans like Colin Kaepernick could take a knee during the National Anthem in protest of white supremacy and police brutality. So that people could criticize the person in the Oval Office when he does or says something stupid. So that the press could continue to ask tough questions of our Administration.

I served because patriotism takes many forms, but to me its purest forms are: 1) exercising the right to criticize America in the hopes we might improve and 2) giving one’s life so that others might exercise that right.

Neither of these forms of patriotism are higher than the other, they are inextricable; we cannot separate the courage required to speak truth to the bruises in our souls with the courage it takes to die so that others might speak that truth.

We cannot separate the collective moral voice that Lincoln called our “better angels” with the mortal sacrifice that he anointed the “last full measure of devotion”.

I am told that proposed boycotts of everything from the NFL to certain actors or films to the entire state of Hawaii are responses to people like Kaepernick “bringing politics” into spaces that are meant to be nonpolitical. 

And again, I call bullshit. I am here to tell you, as a lifelong football fan, that the NFL is the most political institution in the country. More so than Congress. More so than the White House. More so than any memorialized block of marble in all the land.

The NFL is nothing if not political. It is the greatest prism through which we define the American identity precisely because we have made it the most common and explicit touchstone of the American experience.

The NFL is the highest-earning, most-watched sport in the country, and it is also the sport most decorated in patriotic pageantry. These two things working in tandem give greater access to the American value system than anything else in our society.

It’s also the space where we most often see praise of American troops. Every American watching an NFL game is confronted with the truth that there are women and men in uniform who serve, and often die, for our freedoms. 

There’s the National Anthem, the color guard, the jet flyovers, the solemn tributes to the troops, and a million other little snippets of insistence that we are able to watch grown men play with a ball on a field because of those women and men in uniform who sacrifice for our freedoms, which, again, are clearly spelled out in the Constitution. 

And the most important of those freedoms is speaking truth to power. 

The real reason so many White Americans are unsettled by Kaepernick’s protest is the realization that American patriotism is not something White America, or more specifically White Conservative America, gets to exclusively own. 

We, as White Americans, are so accustomed to seeing patriotism made in our own image, bereft of all struggles of people of color, that it is jarring to see a Black American exercise their free speech to protest injustices we can scarcely comprehend. 

I did not serve my country so that grown adults could engage in lofty theatrics for values they supposedly hold dear only to stage an outcry when someone dares to ask if we really care about those values.

I did not serve my country so that other White Americans could use that service to silence Black Americans. 

And–this is important–I did not serve my country so that only military veterans could lay claim to the mantle of patriotism, either.

You can disagree with Kaepernick’s reasons for protesting (although I believe you’d be wrong), but you cannot exploit my service–or that of any military veteran–to shame Kaepernick and other citizens into silence. 

And let me be absolutely clear: if this is your reason to boycott the NFL, not domestic violence, not rape, not traumatic brain injuries, not unfair labor practices, but seeing a black player respectfully kneel in protest of racism, I would have to question not only your understanding of our Constitutional freedoms but the very core of your humanity.

If that core in your soul is missing, there are far bigger problems to address than what’s on Sunday afternoon television. 

I wish you way more than a flag and an anthem in finding it.


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