On August 26th, 2016, at the third game of the 49ers’ preseason, then-quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand for the national anthem. In an interview after the game, Kaepernick explained his decision: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick’s protest inspired a wave of similar demonstrations among NFL teams across the country. At an Alabama rally in late September the next year, President Donald Trump ranted that team owners should either suspend or fire the next “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.”
In response to Trump’s comments, NBC’s Bob Costas had a simple and elegant retort:
“Dissidents are patriots.”
In just three words, Costas simultaneously delivered the best rejection of Trump’s perverted message and a powerful statement about the nature of patriotism.
Trump’s equating the NFL protests with disrespect for America is problematic in that it has strong authoritarian overtones and openly repudiates freedom of speech. But the bigger problem, I believe, is that so much of America shares his perspective.
Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” To much of the American people, not just Trump and his base, that translates into unquestioning loyalty to our nation in its current state. It is easily understand how those who subscribe to that vision of patriotism would brand kneeling during the anthem, burning the flag, or really any form of protest as unpatriotic.
Let’s revisit that definition: “Love for or devotion to one’s country.” If you truly love your country, if you care for it as you would a spouse or a sibling, wouldn’t an attempt to fix its shortcomings be the most noble way to express that love? Is protest not the highest form of patriotism?
Kaepernick’s message in refusing to stand for the anthem was not a declaration of hatred for his country, but a call to action. His goal was too draw attention to systemic police brutality and institutional racism with a statement so tangible and symbolic that Americans would be unable to ignore it. The fact that so many Americans did not understand that at the time of his initial protest, and have not come to understand it in the two years since, indicates that America has a dangerously narrow-minded perspective on patriotism. We need to fix that.