I Understand Why They Knelt

Kansas City Chiefs players take a knee during the national anthem (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
President Trump’s call for NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to be fired was a troubling assault on free speech — and it put the league in an impossible position.

Americans do not and should not worship idols. We do not and should not worship the flag. As a nation we stand in respect for the national anthem and stand in respect for the flag not simply because we were born here or because it’s our flag. We stand in respect because the flag represents a specific set of values and principles: that all men are created equal and that we are endowed with our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

These ideals were articulated in the Declaration of Independence, codified in the Constitution, and defended with the blood of patriots. Central to them is the First Amendment, the guarantee of free expression against government interference and government reprisal that has made the United States unique among the world’s great powers. Arguably, it is the single most important liberty of all, because it enables the defense of all the others: Without the right to speak freely we cannot even begin to point out offenses against the rest of the Constitution.

Now, with that as a backdrop, which is the greater danger to the ideals embodied by the American flag, a few football players’ taking a knee at the national anthem or the most powerful man in the world’s demanding that they be fired and their livelihoods destroyed for engaging in speech he doesn’t like?

As my colleague Jim Geraghty notes this morning, too many in our polarized nation have lately developed a disturbing habit of zealously defending the free speech of people they like while working overtime to find reasons to justify censoring their ideological enemies. How many leftists who were yelling “free speech” yesterday are only too happy to sic the government on the tiny few bakers or florists who don’t want to use their artistic talents to celebrate events they find offensive? How many progressives who celebrated the First Amendment on Sunday sympathize with college students who chant “speech is violence” and seek to block conservatives from college campuses?

The hypocrisy runs the other way, too. I was startled to see many conservatives who decried Google’s termination of a young, dissenting software engineer work overtime yesterday to argue that Trump was somehow in the right. Yet Google is a private corporation and Trump is the most powerful government official in the land. The First Amendment applies to Trump, not Google, and his demands for reprisals are ultimately far more ominous, given his job, than even the actions of the largest corporations. Google, after all, has competitors. Google commands no police force. Everything it does is replaceable.

In the space of less than 24 hours this weekend, the president of the United States did more to politicize sports than ESPN has done in a decade of biased, progressive programming. He singled out free speech he didn’t like, demanded that dissenters be fired, and then — when it became clear that private American citizens weren’t going to do what he demanded — he urged the economic boycott of their entire industry.

He told his political opponents on the football field — men who have defined their lives and careers by their mental and physical toughness — to essentially, “Do what I say or lose your job.” In so doing, he put them in straits far more difficult to navigate than anything Colin Kaepernick has wrought: Stand and they are seen to obey a man who just abused his office, and millions of Americans will view them as a sellout not just to the political cause they love but also to the Constitution itself; kneel and they defy a rogue president, but millions of Americans will view them as disrespecting the nation itself to score political points against a president those Americans happen to like.

At one stroke, thanks to an attempted vulgar display of strength, Trump changed the playing of the anthem and the display of the flag from a moment where all but the most radical Americans could unite to one where millions of well-meaning Americans could and did legitimately believe that the decision to kneel represented a defense of the ideals of the flag, not defiance of the nation they love.

If we no longer fight to secure the same rights for others that we demand for ourselves, we become more tribal, and America becomes less exceptional.

So, yes, I understand why they knelt. I understand why men who would never otherwise bring politics onto the playing field — and never had politicized sports before — felt that they could not be seen to comply with a demagogue’s demands. I understand why even owners who gave millions to Trump expressed solidarity with their players. I understand why even Trump supporters like Rex Ryan were appalled at the president’s actions.

I fear that those who proclaimed yesterday’s events a “win” for the president — after all, many of the players were booed for their stance, and in American politics you generally don’t want to be seen as taking sides against the flag — are missing the forest for the trees. If we lose respect for the First Amendment, then politics becomes purely about power. If we no longer fight to secure the same rights for others that we demand for ourselves, we become more tribal, and America becomes less exceptional.

I respect Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle (and former Army ranger) Alejandro Villanueva, who — alone among his teammates — came out of the locker room to stand for the pledge while the rest of his team remained off the field. I also respect players who reluctantly, but acting out of the conviction that they will not be bullied by the president, chose to kneel when they otherwise never would. I do not, however, respect the actions of Donald Trump. This weekend, he didn’t make America great. He made its politics worse.

When the history of this unfortunate, polarized era of American life is written, whether a man stood or knelt will matter far less than the values we all lived by. Americans who actually defend the letter and spirit of the First Amendment will stand (or kneel) proudly in the history books. Those who seek to punish their political opponents’ speech, on the other hand, can stand or kneel as they wish — so long as they hang their heads in shame.


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David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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