Charles Clymer: White People Do Not Own Patriotism
The call for a boycott over black players in the NFL kneeling during the National Anthem is hypocritical and antithetical to American values.
Over the past few days, I have seen grumblings from white men online that they plan to boycott the NFL over black players protesting. I am a white male, a lifelong NFL fan, and a military veteran, and I have a few things to say. I served this country specifically in defense of the rights enumerated in our Constitution.
I served so that Americans like Kaepernick could take a knee during the National Anthem in protest of white supremacy and police brutality. I served because patriotism takes many forms, and the highest forms of patriotism are exercising the right to criticize America so that we might improve and giving one’s life so that others might exercise that right.
Neither of these forms of patriotism are higher than the other, and 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 for that speech. We cannot separate the moral voice Lincoln called our “better angels” with the sacrifice he anointed the “last full measure of devotion.”
I am told a boycott of the NFL is due to Kaepernick and other black players “bringing politics” into a space meant to be nonpolitical. And 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.
And that is precisely because we have made the NFL 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 most decorated in patriotic pageantry. And these two things, good or bad, working in tandem give greater access to the American value system than anything else in our society.
Those watching an NFL game are confronted with the truth that there are women and men in uniform who serve, and often die, for our freedoms. There is the National Anthem, the color guard, the jet flyovers, the solemn tributes to the troops, the commercials, 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 that are clearly spelled out in the Constitution.
And the most important of those freedoms is speaking truth to power.
If that is not political, if that is not the essence of defining how power is given and granted, then nothing is political. Professional football revolves around a core pageantry of celebrating freedom and the power required to maintain that freedom.
So many White Americans are unsettled by Kaepernick’s protest due to the realization that patriotism is not something we 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.
It is as though White Americans wash, wax, and rev up a nice car for the sake of celebrating having the car but never need to drive it and are shocked when Black Americans use that car to drive down a muddy road, the very purpose for which that car was created.
We are shocked to find problems a wash and wax cannot address, problems we’d sooner never acknowledge, lest we be required to solve them. I did not serve my country so that grown adults could engage in lofty, empty 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.
People can disagree with Kaepernick’s reasons for protesting, but they cannot exploit my service – or that of any military veteran – to shame Kaepernick and other black 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, that part shaped by empathy and compassion.
If that core in your soul is missing, there are far bigger problems to address than what is on Sunday afternoon television. I wish you way more than a flag and an anthem in finding it.