The stage is thus set for autumn confrontations between the NFL and its teams, which want to avoid offending the sensibilities of fans in ways that risk revenue, and NFL players, who may react to being told what they must do on penalty of punishment during the national anthem in the same way Jordan Peterson reacted to the prospect of being told what he must do if asked to use a student’s preferred pronoun.
I sympathize with principled opposition to compelled speech. I’d gladly fly an American flag at my house. But the day a rule was promulgated mandating that I do so would be the day that I took it down. I also still believe that “kneeling for life and liberty,” as the protestesting athletes are doing, is patriotic, for reasons I explain here.
Still, Trump chose this controversy and orchestrated its autumn return for a reason: Although discerning observers understand that the protesting players mean no disrespect to the flag, their actions are easily miscast by a demagogue as profaning what, for many, is a sacred symbol.
The president’s deft manipulation of that misperception is especially frustrating for Americans whose patriotism is properly grounded in the core values of the Founding. Many regard the flag as a symbol of those values, and therefore believe that the protesting NFL players have a far greater claim to the flag than does the president—that while he abuses his position by pressuring a private enterprise to punish its employees for their political speech, the NFL players, kneeling together in public protest of what they believe to be unjust killings, are acting in ways that have parallels to the Founders. That is, they are pledging their honor and risking their fortunes in political protest of what they see as a government that is failing to secure the rights of Americans, and failing in particular to protect their lives and liberty.
I hope they continue to protest. The sorts of reforms called for in Campaign Zero, a list of pragmatic police reforms associated with some Black Lives Matter organizers, are still both necessary and overdue.
But protesting NFL players, like Black Lives Matter as a whole, need to become more adept at avoiding the traps set by their adversaries if they are to advance their agenda rather than help Trump mobilize his base. Since that can be achieved without compromising their mission or goals, it should be achieved. As I put it in a column on the Fourth of July:
Trump loves to cast himself as the protector of the American flag. He was born on Flag Day. He has literally hugged the flag during multiple public appearances. As he campaigns for Republicans leading up to the midterms this fall, he’s likely to pick another fight over whether NFL players are standing sufficiently proudly on the sidelines during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But even as he wraps his presidency in the Stars and Stripes, he defiles that banner, transgressing against the very values and national unity for which it is supposed to stand.
Trump opponents inside the NFL and without should cease allowing him or his allies to claim the flag or other patriotic symbols without a fight.