In My Own Words: Sports, patriotism and the right to protest

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I have zero interest in sports. If I never saw, read about or attended another sporting event, I could live a very happy, productive life. I do understand the various reasons why people love sports, but I feel like I’ve put in my time. My father was a very big sports fan and he liked someone to watch the games with him, whether he attended them in person or viewed them on TV. He was also a golfer and liked to talk about his golf game – shot by shot – so I learned to half listen and nod my head.
I do remember one thing he said about his fellow golfers, some of whom had been high school athletes. At least once during each round, they would stop to take aspirin because of the injuries they suffered while playing high school football. That’s why I’ve never objected to sports stars making large salaries. If their employers are making a fortune, those putting their body on the line should get a fair share. After all, they’re the ones who have to deal with the pain and anguish caused by injuries. That doesn’t end when they retire from the game. Like my father’s friends, they may suffer for the rest of their lives.
What I’ve never understood is why the national anthem was played before games. To me, professional sports are an entertainment likes movies, plays and concerts. We don’t feel the need to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” before those events. I have no objection to its being played, but I think it makes us confuse patriotism with our feelings about football and baseball. You can love the United States and still dislike sports.
Since sports and patriotism have become conflated, it becomes a powerful symbol when a player kneels, rather than stands, during the national anthem. This nonviolent, silent protest has caused a great deal of fuss. Our right to free speech includes non-verbal communication and the players are exercising that right. Plus, no one is physically injured when the players are kneeling and no property is being damaged. I understand both sides of the issue: some feel that kneeling is disrespectful to the U.S. and its armed services, while others believe that institutionalized racism is more disrespectful to the democratic ideals for which our country stands.
A recent change (at least, as of this writing) is that NFL players will no longer be required to be on the field for the national anthem, as they were in the past. However, if they are on the field, they will now be required to stand. If they don’t, the team can take disciplinary action against them. If the team doesn’t, then the National Football League can fine the team. This may sound like an OK compromise, but no one discussed this with the NFL Players Association, so this has not been agreed to by all sides. Another option has not been discussed, at least in the articles I’ve read: We could stop playing the national anthem before sporting events and stop confusing sports with patriotism. We could also recognize that not every citizen has shared equally in the freedoms the U.S. offers.