I couldn’t help but being awed by the spectacle I witnessed Saturday night as a couple of fighter jets flew above Richardson Stadium at Davidson College before the kickoff of the college football season just as a group of young men were finishing singing the final note of the national anthem. The timing was flawless, the patriotism on display the kind that makes you want to buy the woman wearing fatigues on your flight or who crosses your path at Starbucks a cup of coffee to thank her for her service.
That’s why I have a greater appreciation for what former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick did last year, quietly kneel during the playing of the national anthem to highlight police brutality and other forms of inequality. It was an act of political incorrectness for a greater cause, which seems to have offended those who most frequently complain about political correctness. It’s why Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was right to say Kaepernick is being treated unfairly, and a growing number of players have begun protesting, too. The issue was underscored by a recent incident in Las Vegas during which Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett said a police officer held a gun to his head.
Kaepernick decided to highlight an important issue knowing it could be received poorly and could cost him his job. That’s no small thing. In a country that supposedly cherishes freedom and understands that rote compliance with authority is a bigger threat to our way of life than North Korea, peacefully protesting during the national anthem is as unacceptable as questioning an unkind or irate police officer during a traffic stop, no matter our constitutional protections. Why are we teaching our kids that going along with the crowd or doing everything a man in a badge says is an honorable way to live in a democracy? Who taught so many American adults that God-awful lesson?
The trappings of patriotism, no matter how welcoming and heart-warming and awe-inspiring, are not the same thing as the genuine article. Patriotism is about standing in defense of the principles upon which this country was founded, even if the Founders did a poor job of applying those principles to Americans who didn’t look like them. Wearing a flag lapel pin is less important than being willing to sacrifice comfort and momentary treasure to help force the U.S. to live up to its highest ideals. Standing at attention, with hand over heart and cap off, will never mean as much as putting yourself in harm’s way to protect or advocate for the less fortunate, no matter if you do that as a member of the 82nd Airborne, a public school teacher who refuses to kick an at-risk child out of school because he’s hard to handle, or a janitor who does the literal dirty work in the background to make a college campus inviting enough that some of the nation’s top minds want to live, study and work there.
In Kaepernick’s case, he put his own fortune on the line, not just hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars he has already donated to various causes, but his potential earnings. He could have pulled on his helmet and shoulder pads and quietly collected a weekly paycheck larger than most Americans earn in a year and ignored that the American dream remains too far out of reach for far too many people and that there is something disturbing about the way too many of us are being policed.
He could have stood silently during the national anthem and be considered a good American because of it. Instead, he chose to be a better one.