This past Sunday, I was pleasantly reminded to learn that I had no need to adhere to President Donald Trump’s well-intentioned call to boycott the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem. As it turned out, my favorite team, the New York Jets stood in unison as the national anthem played on Sept. 24 in their game against the Miami Dolphins.
This is actually nothing new. As noted by NJ.com’s Darryl Slater in his report, “Over the past year-plus, while anthem protests have spread throughout the NFL, no Jets player has sat or taken a knee for the anthem before a game.” Last Sunday was no different.
Other teams on Sunday, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, stayed in their locker room with lone exception of former Army ranger, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who has since apologized to his team. On Monday, the Dallas Cowboys took the knee before the anthem played and then stood during it being played. Every team figured out how they were going to address the issue. The protest had gone beyond Kaepernick’s original grievance and now had become a message to President Trump.
I think they’re wrong. And so is Kaepernick. On this one, I think the Jets got it right. Regardless of anything that’s happening in the moment, standing for the national anthem remains a voluntary show of respect for the shared experience of America, the story of liberty and the strength of the Union. At the end of the day, we’re still a country that’s bigger than any one person.
As defensive end Leonard Williams explained after the game, “We decided that as a team last night in our team meeting. And, you know, a few guys brought it to our attention. The coach obviously talked about it because of the issues going on right now. And we didn’t want to send any disrespectful vibes by kneeling, so what we did was unite. That’s something we need to do as a team, that’s something that Americans need to do as a nation, you know, is stay united.”
Linebacker Demario Davis offered that, “You can talk about the problem in many different ways, in many different formats, but if you’re just talking about the problem, you’re not talking about the solutions. And I don’t know what the answer or solution is, and I’m taking it since nobody’s come forward, nobody knows what the answer or solution is. So, what we’re saying is, whatever the solution is, we’ve got to find it together. Not divided, you know, but together. United. That’s what our country is called: United States of America.”
Davis added, explaining, “It’s everybody working together toward a common goal and that’s what we symbolize. You know, you look in the locker room, you know, it’s people from all different backgrounds, you know, all different creeds, all different cultures, but we’re able to come together and lock arms, and say, whatever the problem is, we’re going to face this thing head-on, we’re going to face it together, and that’s what it’s going to take, that’s what we stand for in this locker room.”
Total class acts. And it is no surprise to me as a fan, having followed the Jets since Ken O’Brien’s final season as the starting quarterback in 1991. This is exactly what the Jets do in these situations. They pull together.
When Dennis Byrd was horrifically paralyzed in 1992 after colliding with a teammate, the team and organization stood together, and when he was able to walk again, it symbolized I think what the Jets stand for today. It’s their core ethos.
I’ve seen it personally. I was there at the Monday Night Miracle game in 2000 against the Dolphins, where I witnessed first-hand when the team came back from a 23-point 4th quarter deficit, where they were losing 30 to 7, to win in overtime, 40 to 37. When other teams might have given up, the Jets united to give it their all.
United we stand
I can attest after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were several moving ceremonies led by the Jets organization and other franchises in the New York region — a tradition that has gone on for years. The 10-year commemoration of the attacks at the NFL 2011 Sunday night season openerwas particularly moving.
The losses felt in 2001 hit New York City very hard. A big part of the fan base are police officers, fire fighters and first responders. The team’s top superfan is Fireman Ed, who leads the crowd in the “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!” chant every time the team scores.
You see, sports was something we New Yorkers, like many Americans, turned to in the aftermath of the unthinkable horror of the terrorist attacks — to unite. It was how we coped. We all followed the heroic stand the New York Yankees took in the 2001 World Series.
During the 7th Inning Stretch of each game, “God Bless America” was sung by the entire crowd.
When former President George W. Bush threw out the opening pitch in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, the crowd was united as one, just as were the first responders when Bush made his famous, impromptu bullhorn speech on the rubble of the World Trade Center, all chanting in unison, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
We wept when the Yankees lost by a single run in Game 7. It was a bittersweet and yet a fitting end to the season.
The Jets, Giants, Bills, Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Islanders, Rangers, Devils and so forth — teams across the country, too — were all a part of that. They helped in their own ways to heal the nation after an atrocious, tragic attack on U.S. soil that claimed more than 3,000 lives. We used it to rationalize that what was left in the rubble was very much still worth fighting for. So, as a nation, we channeled their energy and spirit into something positive, that whatever challenges the nation faced ahead, we would do it together.
The message was clear: United we stand.
In many ways, Sept. 11 raised the bar to stratospheric levels for what we expect from professional sports to unite the nation. That was why I cheered wholeheartedly when the Jets’ arch nemesis, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, staged what I consider the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in February. It was a moment I could share with millions of Americans, to appreciate something truly great that had occurred. What a comeback.
That is why, more than 16 years later, I am grateful that the Jets have not forgotten the very special responsibility they took upon themselves after 9/11, on behalf of their fans, their city and their country, in the aftermath of the attacks — to unite us. They took the message to heart. They never forgot.
There is still good reason to stand to honor America
When Colin Kaepernick started his protest of the national anthem in 2016, he very clearly explained his position on the issue, stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Obviously, it’s not simply the flag he’s objecting to. To him, the flag symbolizes racial oppression.
That is why, I think, so many are now responding so negatively to the players and now teams taking the knee. Are they agreeing with Kaepernick’s summation that the “flag [represents] a country that oppresses black people and people of color”?
Yet, it’s the same flag the Union carried in the Civil War. 620,000 men died in that war that ultimately abolished slavery. Would Kaepernick kneel for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, too, which has the line, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…”? How about standing to honor those who bled the field at Gettysburg?
What makes America unique is the progress we have made on this front. After the war, we utilized the institutions of the civil society to overcome the injustices of the past. How about standing to honor the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection of the laws and the right to vote?
Or perhaps standing to honor Brown v. Board of Education that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson? After all, this was the same flag that flew when state institutionalized segregation was abolished.
Or even, non-government segregation, as in professional sports, which used to be an all-white affair. The fact that Kaepernick got to participate in the NFL at all is a testament to the progress that has been made. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and revolutionized modern sports that we know and love today. How about standing to honor Robinson and the brave men who fought to include folks of all races in the national spotlight?
And while we can defend Kaepernick’s right to protest free of government interference, we need not endorse the idea that somehow standing for the flag would somehow embrace the racial oppression he says he is protesting by kneeling.
In the “Other America,” Martin Luther King said that America was still racist but he never disrespected the ideals upon which the nation was founded upon like this, and like Abraham Lincoln (see: the Lincoln-Douglas debates where Lincoln invoked the Declaration’s affirmation of faith that “all men are created equal”), was essentially asking that we all live up to those ideals. King, like Lincoln, was pushing for more progress while simultaneously embracing the progress that had already been made.
On the Declaration of Independence, King found much to praise, saying, “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day — that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”
The reason King was successful was because the nation could join with him in his push for equality, because he took the time to convince us we were all fighting for the same ideal, the American ideal.
Kaepernick appears to be saying there is no such ideal and there never was.
Of course, it ignores much of the history to the contrary and even ignores the ideals themselves that were so boldly expressed in the Declaration. How about standing up to honor the Declaration’s central belief, that we’re all created equal?
In the end, King was never fully satisfied that enough progress had been made. Arguably, Lincoln in his last days was more optimistic. In his final speech in 1865, Lincoln was okay with reincorporating states into the Union like Louisiana, even though voting rights were not yet being extended, because they had agreed to abolish slavery and ratify the 13th Amendment. That would come later, Lincoln predicted. As John Philpot Curran once noted, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Lincoln knew there was more work to do, but he was going to bank the gains that had been made.
Overall, like Lincoln, King was persuasive because he appealed to our sense of greater justice. It was slavery and segregation that was out of step with the American ideal, not the other way around.
Ultimately, I think these are the reasons people have responded so strongly in the negative to Kaepernick. It illustrates why disrespect — in this case, to the flag that he misrepresents as a racist article — is not only an unpersuasive form of communication but is counterproductive. Lincoln and King were demonstrating true leadership, calling on those who disagreed with them to embrace their vision, invoking the American ideal. As hard as it was at the time, they were trying to unite us.
Kaepernick on the other hand has divided us. He appears to be unaware of how successful the American ideal has been historically or else he too would invoke it. If nothing else, why not rise to honor the progress that has been made in increasing freedom in our country?
To Kaepernick’s main point on police shootings, not everyone is getting away with murder. Michael Thomas Slager was a police officer who is now facing life in prison over the 2015 murder of the unarmed Walter Scott after pulling him over for a broken tail light. It should never have happened. The case was very straightforward. The facts are clear. The evidence was beyond any doubt. And when that happens, the full weight of the law should be felt. In the end, justice can be served.
We do not strive for perfection or utopia, but advancements in the cause of liberty. By disregarding the flag, Kaepernick appears to be saying that there is nothing worth standing for at all for our nation. That all those who fought for liberty — and died — should not have even bothered. That it was all somehow in vain, when if those efforts had failed, this country and the world at large, would be a much darker, more horrible place to live. It’s a misguided view of America.
The story of America is the struggle for liberty, and as imperfect as that history has been, like Lincoln, I’ll take a half of loaf than no loaf at all.
And as the Jets have reminded us on Sept. 24, we’re all in this together, and the only way we’re going to advance the cause of equal liberty is by uniting together as a nation. There is still more to be done, but we can still stand together.
Today, I’m proud to be a Jets fan and I’m proud to be an American.
As a side note, the Jets won their game against the Dolphins on Sunday. They stood for their flag in unison and won an emotional, decisive victory, 20 to 6. Good for them.
Even if that’s the only game the team wins this year, I’m glad the Jets are taking a stand for America — and so should you.
Correction: The Dallas Cowboys did take the knee before the national anthem played on Monday Night Football, but stood when the anthem began.