Two things are certain to happen this fall. The first is the start of the National Football League’s 99th season. The second is the first Trump era mid-term election cycle. We can be nearly certain that something else will be happening too. 24 hour news cycles filled with talking heads debating NFL players protesting during the national anthem.
There’s already a Beto O’Rourke video that’s gone viral and won’t leave my Twitter feed. It’s only August.
One of the most commonly used arguments against the players protesting is that they are being disrespectful to service men and women who make tremendous sacrifices to protect the liberties that allow men like NFL athletes to earn millions of dollars playing a game.
As a vet, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time thinking about that particular argument. It’s both problematic and indicative of the divided political environment we live in.
The idea that the flag or the national anthem are the unique domain of the roughly 1% of Americans serving is always something I’ve found odd. And it leaves me wondering a bit about what type of actions we should be thinking about that may be disrespectful to the other 99% of Americans not serving. Or the 93% that never served.
As for how most vets feel about flag protests, we’re simply a cross section of the rest of America. If we identify conservative, it bugs the hell out of us. If we identify progressive, we admit that protesting is one of the rights we serve to defend. If we’re neither, well then, it depends.
Broadly speaking, the service member community has a conservative tilt. It’s not quite as steep as it seems. Most service members are younger. And many simply don’t consider themselves political at all. But it’s fair to say that the protests bother many vets. Those that take deep offense to professional athletes protesting during the national anthem don’t do so over some tangible value inherent with the sacrifice of service though. They do so as an extension of their political beliefs.
One of the central debates in modern American politics is how comfortable one is at admitting that America’s deeply troubled history of how we’ve treated people of color still matters to America today. As the only industrialized nation to allow the racially specific enslavement of humans into the latter half of the 19th century, and one that only legally eliminated racial segregation 50 years ago, its hard to argue that our past is problematic. Whether or not any of that matters to someone is the question.
Whether or not any of it matters enough to one to look at the flag and have serious questions about what it meant, means and can/should mean in the future, is a question that breaks down political lines. Additionally, since the protests, as described by those protesting, are aimed at bringing awareness to the issue of police violence against people of color, the law and order aspect of politics is also in play.
Like our views on protest, law and order is a legally definitive yet politically subjective term. For example, whether one feels that the misdemeanor of entering the country illegally is more serious than the felony of tax and bank or campaign finance fraud is actually not a legal debate. The justice system is clear. Serious financial felonies have sentences of decades to life in prison. Entering the country illegally is, as stated, a misdemeanor. And protesting the flag is, unquestionably, a right granted by the Constitution of the United States of America.
In a literal sense, there is no debate. In a political sense though, it’s as big as ever. And it’s not going away any time soon.