Editorial: To kneel or not to kneel, that is not the question

Another week, another Trump tweeting controversy. NFL players across the country responded in unprecedented solidarity to comments made by President Trump scolding the league over the weekend. It started when Trump told reporters and the press on Friday at a campaign rally in Alabama, “Those people taking a knee when they’re playing our great national anthem, wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘get that son of a bitch off the field?’”

During Sunday’s NFL games, every single team protested Trump’s comments by taking a knee during the national anthem, remaining in the locker room until play, and/or locking arms on the sidelines. The next morning on Twitter, Trump tweeted, “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable.” While Trump implied that kneeling does not constitute appropriate practice of free speech, press, politicians, and critics from both sides of the political aisle made arguments overwhelmingly in favor of these demonstrations of said free speech and expression.

We reiterate that all of those who protested by locking arms, kneeling in solidarity, sporting #I’mWithKAP t-shirts, or boycotting the national anthem to begin with, peacefully exercised their free speech rights. Need we reiterate that disrespectful speech is still free speech? If so, please see “Is hate speech still free speech?” at www.bucknellian.net.

While there may be a viable argument that the NFL player’s actions were disrespectful, we should caution that an argument of this sort needs clarification of exactly towards whom these actions were disrespectful. Consider, for example, that #TakeAKnee posts from veterans went viral on social media following Trump’s NFL fury. Some veterans, then, did not find #TakeaKnee to be disrespectful. In fact, they actively advocated on its behalf. Perhaps Trump, a man who claims he speaks for all of the “courageous Patriots [who] have fought and died for our great American Flag,” yet has no military experience himself, should refrain from extrapolating the perspectives of all veterans.

We might question Trump’s claim that American soldiers fight and die to defend the American flag. Perhaps a clarification is needed that American soldiers fight and die to preserve American liberties, including (and often foremost) our freedom to express ourselves, when and how we’d like to. Sports teams don’t always respond to racial injustices, but constitutionally speaking, the players can kneel because they can.

We should also distinguish between NFL players who kneel during the national anthem and those who kneel while representing the United States of America. Following then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe knelt while the national anthem played during several U.S. national team contests in 2016. Her actions prompted U.S. soccer to rule that in international competitions, athletes were required to “stand respectfully” during the national anthem.

Instead of arguing over whether or not kneeling is appropriate, we should think about the symbolisms of the American flag, and that it might hold different interpretations for different citizens. What remains out of Trump’s control is the debate as to what the American flag actually symbolizes. Does it represent and serve the current administration? The country and American people as a whole? Those who have served in the armed forces? Or does the flag symbolize our rights and freedom, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech?

Ironically, Trump’s doubling-down on the NFL and other athletes’ actions of solidarity only furthers a narrow and divisive interpretation of patriotism. Trump contradicting himself is nothing new nor noteworthy. During a 2015 interview with David Letterman, Trump seemed to agree “100 percent” that burning the American flag was still a form of freedom of expression.

This narrow interpretation of patriotism largely contradicts even what former Trump supporters construe as appropriate national anthem behavior. Former Buffalo Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan, who introduced Trump at a 2016 rally in Buffalo, N.Y., called Trump’s comments “appalling.” Shahid Khan, the only Muslim team owner in the league, led his team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in locking arms on the sidelines during the national anthem despite the fact that he donated $1 million dollars to Trump’s campaign last year. Given this weekend’s Twitterstorm, it seems that only NASCAR and the Pittsburgh Penguins are patriotic enough for Trump.

The NFL’s solidarity movement also detracted from a slew of other important political issues, for example North Korea, the budding Jared Kushner email scandal, and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, which has had devastating implications for the 3.4 million American citizens living in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Maybe it would be more “patriotic” to channel “respect for our country” by leading the charge in relief efforts for millions of our own citizens, instead of attacking a handful for protesting peacefully.

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