Imagine that former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow had taken the on-field praying he had become famous for – “Tebowing” – and did so during the anthem, dropping to a knee and bowing his head.
Now imagine he said that gesture was meant to remind everyone to put God first, even before a certain iconic red, white and blue flag.
“I respect the American flag, the freedoms for which it stands and those who sacrificed for those freedoms,” Tebow would have declared. “But there’s only one God. Being compelled to stand in a free country as a forced display of public loyalty, even to a place as great as the United States, would feel too much like worshipping a flag and placing it above God. That, I cannot do.”
Would those who are criticizing Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players for kneeling during the anthem have criticized Tebow for such a gesture? Would President Donald Trump, who received a historically high percentage of the votes of white Evangelical Christians most attuned to Tebow, repeatedly pressured owners of NFL teams to fire Tebow? Would there have been calls for boycotts and the burning of NFL jerseys and season tickets and refunds from DirecTV to irate fans? Would it have become the reason Tebow was no longer allowed to play in the league?
The answer to each of those questions is no, which tells you why the growing angst over the protest isn’t about the kneeling, but the message the protest sends. Not even those who didn’t like Tebow’s overt displays of conservative Christian faith would have accepted President Obama scolding him for kneeling. Tebow would have been cheered – particularly by those in the South now screaming for Kaepernick’s head – instead of being blackballed from the league. (Tebow was given a second-chance with the New York Jets after being let go by the Denver Broncos despite the circus-like atmosphere that followed him and that he was not an effective pro quarterback while Kaepernick, a former Super Bowl starter, hasn’t.)
Tebow certainly would not have been called anti-American for kneeling in prayer during the anthem. He would have been considered even more American in the minds of many of those who have all but deemed Kaepernick an ungrateful traitor who is spitting on the graves of dead soldiers. That’s because there is nothing inherently disrespectful about quietly kneeling during the anthem. Nothing. That’s why despite all the howls, no one has yet explained how, specifically, the act of quietly kneeling is an affront to American values – because it’s not.
The real problem is that NFL players are using their perch to raise awareness about racial inequality and police brutality, subjects many people want to avoid, not only at the start of a three-hour football game, but every day of the week. That’s why Kaepernick’s critics have expressed more outrage about a peaceful protest than they did when a jury couldn’t find a North Charleston police officer guilty, even though that officer was captured on video shooting a fleeing man in the back multiple times, or that Freddie Gray had his neck nearly severed while in police custody and not one of the officers involved was held accountable by the criminal justice system.
That’s why when my son told me a teacher told his economics class that though he sympathized, the players are disrespecting the American flag, I told my son he had my permission to kneel if he wanted to, and if that teacher had a problem with it, that teacher would soon have a problem with me.
Peaceful protest has helped perfect this democracy. It should be embraced, not demonized.