A black professional football player recently refused to stand during the pre-game singing of the American National Anthem. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after the game. "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." This dramatic insult to the American anthem and the American flag has certainly caught everyone’s attention. This football player has become a hero among some of his fans, while others express disgust at his behavior. The President of the United States has noted that the football player was exercising his right to free speech.
The real issue, though, is not about the right of freedom of expression. The issue is whether a person should exercise that right in a manner that is deeply offensive to the honor of the country. Yes, one has the right to burn American flags or sit down during the National Anthem; but is such behavior appropriate, even as a form of protest? Has American society become so evil that its flag no longer deserves to be respected? The football player said that he would not show pride for a country that “oppresses black people and people of color.” He says this in a country that has a black President, many black government officials, business executives, doctors, teachers etc. He says this in a country where he—and many professional black athletes—take home paychecks in the many millions of dollars. He says this in a country which has worked very hard—and often with dramatic success—to eliminate the scourge of racial discrimination.
Is everything perfect? No, it is not. There are still strong currents of racism within the American public, and justice is not always achieved. But is everything so hopeless that the American flag and National Anthem are to be dishonored in a flagrant public display? Many individuals and groups can find fault with aspects of American society. Should they exercise their right to free speech by disparaging the symbols of American freedom and democracy? If people have a grievance with the American government, or with corrupt politicians, or with the American court system, should they therefore show disdain for the American people and the American ideals? America is built on the great ideals of liberty and justice for all. These ideals are very high and very noble. That America aspires to attain these ideals makes it one of the truly great countries of this era…or any era. That America has not always lived up to these ideals does not diminish the greatness of the American aspirations.
We have a right and responsibility to point out imperfections in American life; we have a right and responsibility to raise our voices on behalf of justice and in opposition to injustice; we have a right and responsibility to do our best to promote American ideals and overcome American failings. When people refuse to stand for the National Anthem or when they show disdain for the American flag, they are not merely protesting this or that perceived injustice. They are slandering the American nation, and the values and ideals that are symbolized by the Anthem and flag. This type of behavior serves to corrode the American spirit and encourages people to lose respect for the American polity and the American dream. If more and more people decide to disrespect the American flag and National Anthem, America becomes a bleaker and weaker nation.
Yes, people have the right in America—land of the free—to express their grievances in offensive and disrespectful ways. But should they do so? Bad manners are not only uncivil and repugnant, but are counter-productive. Bad manners in disparaging the national symbols of America do not bring our society closer to achieving the American ideals; they push us further away from those very ideals. They inject divisiveness, antagonism and controversy that eat away at the moral fabric of the nation We all have work to do in order to bring American society closer to its cherished ideals and values. Together we must work to be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.