According to many media outlets, and even more internet trolls, several professional athletes have begun "protesting the national anthem," but it seems to me that they are in fact advocating for what the anthem represents: freedom and justice for all. By quietly sitting while the anthem is sung, they're protesting the system that is not enabling the anthem to serve its true purpose for all Americans. I haven't heard any of them say they disagree with the ideal of American freedom or with the people who fought for that flag, but they certainly disagree with the fact that the same protection doesn't belong to everyone.
A recent statement from Steve Largent, a former NFL star turned politican helped shape my new perspective on this topic. I appreciate the respect Largent is trying to show here--both to the patriots who have fought for our country, and to the people who have conducted their silent protests during the anthem. But I think his response also reveals more systemic social oppression than many white folks (especially white men) might realize.
Largent says "that anthem means something to me, and it should mean something to everyone." The hard part to accept is that it DOES mean something to these protesting athletes, but to them it means a reminder of the freedom, respect, and opportunity granted to people who don't look like them.
Like many well-meaning Americans, Largent kindly says that he's not discounting the African American experience but that there is a better time to make their statements. Honestly, at first I thought so too but then I realized I couldn't think of another time that would have as much of an impact. Largent suggests that NFL players should use their access to microphones, pen, and paper to voice their concern instead of sitting during the anthem, but I can't imagine that anyone would actually staff a press conference if an African American athlete simply wanted to announce that he disapproves of racial oppression. Sure, maybe if they wrote an article and posted it online, it might be read by some of their fans, but to make a difference outside of their fan base, I can understand why they chose to make their statement in such a public manner. This brought me a surprising revelation of the privilege through which many of us have viewed this protest--The privilege of not realizing when opportunities don't exist for others. In this case, many of us have assumed that everyone has plenty of viable options to initiate the change they're addressing, and we've assumed that these men rudely chose to bypass those options in order to sit during the anthem.
That same example of privilege parallels Largent's statement that "The thing [he draws] a line on is when you are trying to honor the country that has given all of us so many opportunities." The flag is supposed to represent freedom for ALL, right? I don't believe these athletes are trying to disrespect the flag itself or the people who sacrificed to uphold it, but they ARE trying to draw attention to the fact that those opportunities aren't being shared equitably among all the people who deserve them. Shouldn't our frustration be with the oppression preventing what the flag stands for...instead of with the protestors telling us there's oppression preventing it?
We need to stop buying in to the headline that these men are protesting against the national anthem itself, that they're unpatriotically sitting during the anthem. We need to start patriotically fighting with them for what our anthem is supposed to stand for. Then everyone will want to stand up for it again too.