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Taking a Knee

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Is it ever acceptable to kneel while the national anthem is played? The controversy has deepened now that Trump has weighed in, saying that players who do so should be fired. He faulted the NFL as a unit over this just ahead of this week’s games.

The response from the league has been ferocious. And it is justified. After all, those who kneel are only answering the question with their own emphatic “No!” as is their right as a free people. It is a question we should all be asking ourselves and not the patriotism of those who answer it differently than we do. Anything less means that we are not, indeed, free.

The Baltimore Ravens united, on their knees, before the game.

The scene was far away from America, in Wembley Stadium. The NFL plays some games there for the UK fans of the sport, hoping to attract interest in this peculiarly American sport around the globe. Americans abroad have a calling to be united and put a good face on what our nation stands for when representing us.

The result was indeed unanimity among the players for the Raven and the Jaguars. They all took a knee.

I wish it did not come to this. I love football and I love the unifying nature of sport to bring people together. The NFL makes a point to keep politics out of the game as much as possible, and shuns on-field activities which do not promote unity. It is entirely reasonable that Colin Kaepernick, who started the practice, has bee black-listed for being too political on the field. It’s also likely that Tim Tebow met the same fate for praying on the field very publicly. The NFL does this. It’s a team sport.

This is why the show of unity at Wembley was a new milestone in the controversy. It came after Trump’s condemnation but also after the league Commissioner Goodall weighed in as did many owners. I leave to the Steven Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, my team, to explain:

Our country needs unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness. We need to seek to understand each other and have civil discourse instead of condemnation and sound bites. I know our players who kneeled for the anthem and these are smart young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone. They wanted to start a conversation and are making a difference in our community, including working with law enforcement to bring people together. We all can benefit from learning, listening and respecting each other. Sports is a common denominator in our world. We all have the responsibility to use this platform to promote understanding, respect and equality.

We don’t win enough, but I’m always proud of my team. Especially today.

Similar sentiments, but not these exact words, echoed across America today. We’ve finally had enough.

Is it unpatriotic to refuse to stand for the anthem? The question at the end of the first verse was posed when the nation was in great peril. The first generation after the Revolution, who inherited freedom without earning it themselves, was unsure. Would this nation endure? Did it still have what it took to deserve freedom?

The question should be asked, but it must be understood as a question. And as a free people the answer can always be “No!” When lives are taken by officers of the law on a routine basis, there is something wrong. When we cannot understand our own neighbors or why they are upset with what they perceive as routine unfairness, there is something wrong. When we cannot work out our disagreements together in a common statement of “fairness” there is something wrong.

It’s all about us!

There is something wrong because we are not brave any longer. And we are not living up to the standards which gave us the freedom we claim to cherish.

When Colin Kaepernick first knelt down for the anthem it was a personal statement. It has become more than that. As an American I felt obliged to respect his right to say “No!” as he saw fit, understanding that there might well be consequences for him.

Now that the right to this expression is being challenged it is no longer personal. We must be united in saying that this is, indeed, a right of a free people.

Football is not a good place for politics, for sure. It is a team sport. It is built on unity. Then again, so is the freedom we claim to cherish.

We should be united on this point, as were our countrymen abroad this week. America is bigger than what we can all imagine. America has room for us to say “No!” and mean it.  All of us.

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