Update: Just when it seemed the national anthem issue in the NFL had died down, President Donald Trump called any player who protested is a "son of a bitch" and should be fired. This column first appeared on Sept. 7.
Taking a knee used to be a good thing in the National Football League — if it happened to be your team’s quarterback kneeling with the ball in the final seconds of the game. Game over. Party’s on.
But as the 2017 season kicks off Thursday night and throughout the weekend, everyone will be paying close attention to a new statistic: who is standing and who is not during the national anthem.
In fact, ESPN.com keeps a running tally of what players did in preseason games while many of you were struggling to hit the high notes of a song Francis Scott Key surely never intended as a sing-along. And the networks just announced that they will broadcast the protests.
But the one man who hasn’t been on the “Star-Spangled Banner” scorecard this season is the man who started it all a year ago — Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco quarterback. That’s because, as of early this week, nobody in the NFL would hire him after he exercised his First Amendment rights before the start of several 49ers games in the 2016 season.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media last year. “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.”
So never mind that there has been a place in the league for men who abuse women and drugs, and at least one Hall of Fame linebacker who got away with murder.
Never mind that Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions in his final eight starts last season. (By comparison, the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer passed for 15 TDs and threw nine picks his final eight games.)
Kaepernick has been literally blacklisted by the league’s owners for taking a stand by not standing.
And that’s just silly.
The national anthem wasn’t played before every American sporting event until World War II. Even after that, some teams saved it only for special occasions until we had a surge of jingoism during the Vietnam War.
Moreover, before 2009, most NFL players didn’t come out of their locker rooms for the national anthem. They stayed behind, getting their adrenaline, or whatever, pumped up so that they could beat the snot out of the man standing in front of them.
Only after the U.S. military threw millions of dollars at American pro leagues to put on patriotic shows were the players asked to join in the pregame ceremonies.
Asked, but not required, according to Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England, who got confirmation from NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy that the anthem ritual began in 2009.
“As you know, the NFL has a long tradition of patriotism,” McCarthy added. “Players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem.”
The defense department stopped the payments in 2015, thanks to a Senate investigation headed by Arizona’s own John McCain and Jeff Flake, yet the faux displays of patriotism linger.
A J.D. Power poll of TV viewers indicated that the No. 1 reason that the NFL’s TV ratings took a slight dip in 2016 is because viewers didn’t like the protests by Kaepernick and a few other players who followed suit.
Of course, that turned out to be fake news. Actual research by the networks, including Fox, showed that the only reason ratings dropped slightly was intense interest in the presidential election.
Besides, how many of you were standing at attention at home when the anthem was being played? I thought so. Most of you were already planted in front of your flat-screen, one hand on a Bud, the other reaching for the chips and salsa.
But as I write this, I can feel sphincters tightening everywhere.
“Soldiers and police officers died defending that flag, and these millionaire babies should show some respect!” you’re shouting at this very moment.
I don’t agree.
The flag is a symbol. What the military and first responders fought to protect is a country where you are allowed to speak your mind. Or not say anything at all and just take a knee during the national anthem, as Kaepernick did.
But while he may not be suited up this week, his presence will be felt throughout the league.
According to ESPN, players from at least nine teams have participated in some sort of anthem protest during preseason games, with a few white players showing solidarity with their black teammates.
The largest demonstration occurred in Cleveland, where a dozen Browns formed a circle, knelt, and prayed.
“With everything you do, you have to have respect,” linebacker Christian Kirksey, who led the prayer, told the Akron Beacon Journal. “If anyone was wondering what was going on in that circle … we were praying over the country, praying over things that are going on, and we tried to do it as respectfully as possible.”
Hardly sounds like an anarchist.
Nevertheless, at least one northeast Ohio talk show host at a station where I once worked called for fans to boycott the Browns unless the players show the proper respect for our country.
The radio host, Jim Isabella of WNIR-FM, became quite angry when I suggested on his Facebook page that many of the same people who supported the First Amendment rights of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville are upset at these black athletes for expressing theirs.
But I agree that wholeheartedly that Browns fans should boycott the team — until it improves on its 1-15 record from 2016.
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Imagine, though, that your Arizona Cardinals had participated in some kind of national anthem demonstration (which they haven’t).
Would you turn your backs on what could be the final seasons of superstars Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer?
Let’s kneel and pray about that.