Scott Audette / Reuters

Given my druthers, NFL players returning to the gridiron this fall would restart their protests against unjust police killings in a new way: They would stand tall during the national anthem while conspicuously holding mini flagpoles with a trio of tiny banners: the Stars and Stripes on top, signifying their patriotism; Black Lives Matter in the middle, signifying their cause; and beneath it a flag declaring “Donald Trump = cowardly identity politics + political correctness.”

That equation would be substantively justified by the president’s push to have NFL players punished by their employers for engaging in political speech—an action that no elected official should ever take—and his reason for doing so: the political gains he expects if he can stoke ethnic tensions and polarization around a racially tinged debate just as the nation is preparing to vote in this fall’s midterm elections.

Trump may well get his way.

“Miami Dolphins players who protest on the field during the national anthem could be suspended for up to four games under a team policy issued this week,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday. “Miami’s anthem policy comes after the NFL decided in May that teams would be fined if players didn’t stand during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ while on the field. The league left it up to teams on how to punish players. None of the team policies have been made public.” That story prompted the NFL to announce a temporary freeze on the enforcement of its new policy until it can come to an agreement with the players’ union.

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.

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