Patriotism and Protest, the Constitution and Free Markets

kaep“The Present Time”

Colin Kaepernick will return to the starting lineup for the San Francisco 49ers in Buffalo on Sunday. If you are “purely” a football fan (which is becoming harder and harder, more on which later), this is simply a matter of a change at quarterback for a struggling team with a first-year head coach. Kaepernick ceased being “purely” a football player this summer, though, when the media started reporting on him sitting or kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick’s arms are tattooed with verses from Psalm 18 (“You armed with my strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me”). —Farewell to Football? (pp. 82-83)

Kaepernick believes that as an athlete of color (a mixed-race child adopted and raised by white parents), he has a responsibility to bring attention to problems of racial justice in America, specifically police violence against black men and the disproportionate incarceration of black men. He has a point, but he also runs up against resistance built into his role as a professional football player. Football, especially NFL football, is an entertainment industry whose business model is predicated on providing a compelling sport to its audience. Some among the NFL audience are resisting the intrusion of politics into their entertainment, as several media outlets report.

In this CBS Boston article writer Matt Doloff reports on “the hundreds of fans who literally told me they stopped watching the NFL because they were sick of the anthem protests and the injection of politics into NFL games in the first place.” Sporting News calls it the Kaepernick Effect and reports on a poll showing 32% of fans less likely to watch NFL games because “these fans are angry at Kaepernick for politicizing sports, viewing it as the last refuge from political correctness and the Culture Wars. Others see the protests as an insult to police officers, members of the U.S. military and family whose loved ones have died in the line of duty.”

As a veteran, as a football fan, as a writer and a . . . ruminator, I’ve been ruminating on this conundrum for a while. For me, it all comes back to this issue of patriotism–because Kaepernick’s protest leverages the visibility of the flag-and-anthem ceremony at the beginning of NFL games (actually peripheral and unnecessary to the sport itself), it’s become a question of patriotism. But what is patriotism?

What Kind of Patriotism?

Kirk Douglas played Colonel Casey, who tried to stop a plot and preserve the Constitution.

I ruminated over that question when I was an active-duty Army officer in the 1980’s. We would render honor to the colors (the flag) several times a day, and as a commissioned officer with college degrees in English and philosophy, I used to think about what that symbol, our flag, symbolized. At some point, I settled on my answer: the flag represents our Constitutional form of government, our guaranteed personal liberties and our clearly-delineated restrictions on government power. I was, and am, a Constitutional Patriot. Kirk Douglas, as Colonel Casey, spoke for me in John Frankenheimer’s movie Seven Days in May (1964), when he declared that the Constitution is “what we’ve got and I guess it’s worked pretty well so far.” The flag stands for the Constitution, and the Constitution stands for personal and political and economic liberty.

Ideally, then, what Kaepernick should or should not do at the beginning of football games ought to be a matter for the market to decide. NFL players are still Americans, and they don’t lose their Constitutional rights to free speech and expression when they sign their contracts to play professional football. But in the context of the games, they are employees under contract with the NFL and the teams, and can be reasonably subject to workplace rules and restrictions. It’s up to the teams and the NFL to decide whether to impose such restrictions, and it’s OK, too, for the audience as consumers to express their preferences. Let the free market, the exchange of goods and services, sort it out.

Unfortunately, the NFL is no more a “true” free market than the federal government of the USA is a “true” Constitutional republic or democracy. The NFL (as does the NCAA for college football) works closely with the government to restrict trade and competition, and to redirect public funds–billions of dollars–in ways that the public only vaguely approves (for a very-well-detailed treatment of these issues, see Gregg Easterbrook’s The King of Sports). The federal government, on an entirely more massive scale, makes a mockery of the Constitutional system of checks and balances and the rule of law. Just to take two examples, Presidents have prosecuted dozens of wars since World War II without a single Constitutionally-mandated declaration of war, and in that time and especially since 9/11/01, Presidents have operated extensive programs for “extrajudicial killing,” essentially assassinations.

Back to the smaller scale of pesky little issues like freedom of speech, the executive branch under President Obama has been extremely aggressive about redefining free-speech (less!) and hate-speech (more!) on college campuses, and I’m sure there are some people who think the federal government should get involved in telling the NFL what players should or shouldn’t be allowed to do and say as political expression. Some quasi-governmental entities like police-officer unions want to get involved. Some customers already think that because the NFL protests represent left-leaning social justice themes, the NFL is allowing them to continue to court favor with the Obama administration. “Culture Wars.”

What do I think?

My Homily on Luke 12:57

“Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”

I believe that our “Culture Wars,” the rancid and dispiriting presidential election campaign that is also reducing NFL TV ratings, the rancor over the “politicization of sports,” the restrictions of free speech on college campuses, these and many other problems bedeviling our country are cumulative results of our having chosen to live with things that we know are not right. It’s a different universe of woe for each of us, each of us with our God-given gift of free choice of the will and accompanying freedom to sin and fail, but in some way or another we all know. We know that a fifteen-year-war in Afghanistan can’t be right. We know that America having the highest rate of incarceration in the world can’t be right. We know that America currently having the richest and least-popular Congressional class in its history can’t be right. We know that routine capital punishment and abortion and euthanasia can’t be right. But, collectively and over time, we found it too inconvenient to do what we knew was right (cf. 2TIM4:2), and now we are finding that the world we’ve thus shaped is way beyond inconvenient. It’s intolerable.

So, what am I doing about it? As I realized early in the process of researching my book, Farewell to Football?, I am not going to reform college football or the NFL or the federal government, but what I can work toward is the conversion of my own heart and then to work with others close to me as they also seek conversion. Ministry. The way of the Cross. The very real possibility that I will become a “cause of division,” in imitation of Christ (Luke 12:51).

The book was one step. Ministry to groups of men, using the book as a starting point, is another. I will be conducting my first series of “micro-retreats” with Deacon David Johnson and a small group of parishioners at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Houston, TX. Through challenging our attachments to the great sport of football (and all that we let in when we invite football into our lives and homes), we are deepening our examination of conscience in general, challenging ourselves to judge what is right and to do something about it, to live in better conformity with what Jesus taught us and what He showed us. We will see where the Holy Spirit leads us.

He also said to the crowds, “When you see [a] cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56)


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