Memorial Day Observations: Patriotism, Coercion and the NFL

The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember–memorialize– those who died in active military service to the country.

As we contemporary Americans enjoy our beers and barbecues, perhaps we should take a few minutes to consider what national characteristics and ideals have been considered important enough to merit that ultimate sacrifice. (It’s a holiday; we can postpone consideration of how frequently we’ve fallen short of those ideals to another time…)

Liberty and equality are often said to be the basic American values. The nation’s founders defined liberty as personal autonomy–your freedom as an individual to “do your own thing,” so long as your “thing” wasn’t harming the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others.

In other words, live and let live–at least up to a point.

Americans have often disagreed about what constitutes harm and about the proper limits of government’s power, but generally within the confines of that libertarian definition. The nation’s courts have increasingly taken a dim view of government efforts to intrude into matters that are properly the purview of personal conscience and individual decision-making.

Since the Bill of Rights only limits what government can do, arguments against improper exercises of private power must rest on consistency with our national values unless they contravene some affirmative law.

Which brings me to the NFL, and its recent decision to require players to exhibit public behaviors that team owners and our ignoramus President deem “patriotic.” The NFL is not government; as private employers, owners cannot violate the First Amendment. They can, however, demean its principles and the very concept of patriotism. And by imposing a rule that government could not constitutionally impose, they have.

A few observations:

  • The “fans” who have declared themselves so offended–who claim that “taking a knee” is “disrespectful” to the flag and unpatriotic–haven’t  complained about the longstanding forms of “disrespect” that routinely occur during the national anthem: food vendors hawking, large numbers of attendees ignoring the ceremony and talking, etc. Nor have they mounted an effort to ban flag bathing suits and bandanas, or protested when some civil war apologist displays the confederate flag. So you’ll excuse me if I conclude that their real objection is to black athletes having the temerity to (quietly and yes, respectfully) protest police brutality toward African-Americans.
  • Genuine patriotism expresses itself by fidelity to the principles upon which this country was founded. Among the most important of those principles are freedom of speech and conscience, and civic equality. The soldiers we memorialize today didn’t fight and die for a piece of cloth; they were defending the principles that the piece of cloth symbolizes. The player protests are consistent with those principles; the NFL rule is an expression of contempt for them.
  • The exercise of power doesn’t change hearts and/or minds. If human history teaches us anything, it is that coerced expressions of religious belief or patriotic allegiance are not only inauthentic but counterproductive. Forcing children to recite a prayer in school doesn’t make them religious; forcing grown men to forego public expression of their grievances doesn’t lessen the grievance.

The NFL has caved in to the bullying of a racist President and the noisy anger of his rightwing base. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this rule from people who understand genuine patriotism to require respect for the rights of players to express  opinions with which they may or may not agree.

Noise, after all, doesn’t equate to numbers, and I’m willing to bet that the people disgusted by the NFL’s cowardly effort to placate phony “patriots”outnumber those noisemakers by a substantial margin.

If the NFL owners lose more business than they gain, it will serve them right. Their brand of “patriotism” dishonors the flag they purport to be respecting.


  1. Prof K’s words:
    “the bullying of a racist President and the noisy anger of his rightwing base. ”
    Sounds right. Good luck players. There is no game and no money w/o the players.
    The games are totally pointless but that is another issue

  2. “The NFL has caved in to the bullying of a racist President and the noisy anger of his rightwing base. ”

    The NFL is big business; what would happen if Walmart, General Motors, Toyota, Shell Service Stations and other big businesses would refuse to allow their employees to “take a knee” prior to beginning their work day? What would Trump do? Patriotism is not (yet) part of required religious significance in the NFL business world.

    Our National Anthem ends with the words, “…the flag yet flies o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” Those brave enough to “take a knee” are obviously not free in this land.

    I feel my most patriotic when speaking and writing against our current ruling government, primarily Trump and closely followed by Pence. I will not be one of those “good American”, like those “good Germans” who swore they didn’t know what was going on. I KNOW! In 2020 I will again place my “Pence Must Go” sign in my front yard…unless a miracle has occurred and they have both been removed from power. They both have the right to think and believe and, sadly the right, to speak their minds; they do NOT have the right to turn their thoughts and beliefs into laws or business demands which curtail the rights of others.

    During my elementary school years in the 1940’s and 1950’s; the day before Memorial Day, May 30th, we brought fresh flowers from our home gardens and placed them in buckets of water in all entrances to the school. Later, our janitor Mr. Morris and his helper, loaded the buckets in a pickup truck and carried them to local cemeteries to place on the graves of servicemen. Memorial Day, always May 30th, was a holiday and those years were war years of WWII and Korea so we understood what the day meant. Do today’s school children know…do most adults know and understand? Or are they the ones protesting players who “take a knee”?

  3. “The NFL has caved in to the bullying of a racist President and the noisy anger of his rightwing base. ”

    The NFL policy was not adopted by voting. It was a DICTATORIAL decision pushed by the more FAR RIGHT owners. I’d rather not mention names. All the owners are capitalists. None of them wanted to be kicked off the game of capitalism anymore than the vast majority of African-American professional football players want to be kicked off the lucrative game of professional football. So they all caved in.

    However, I predict, if or when, the next time the African-American players protest, it won’t be over the ISSUE of POLICE BRUTALITY, but over another more vital issue called FASCISM, where they and their families are ONE of the primary TARGETS.

  4. I might have mentioned it before, my best friend and I started the first integrated sports management company, VICTORY SPORTS MANAGEMENT, almost 40 years ago. Our other partner was a NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE great and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

  5. As a nation we ceased to regard the National Anthem as a symbol of unity when we began the now ubiquitous practice of not singing it. Now we have some one hired to sing it for us. We listen to it, or we listen to the celebrity singer singing it because he or she is more spectacular the anthem itself. Therefore its presentation at the beginning of a sports event has become a moment more akin to entertainment than to an expression of patriotism. We could change this. We could ask everyone present to sing. Then the Anthem might once again become a symbol of a remarkable unity of people’s with very different ideas about the essential qualities of America. It could begin the process of overcoming the divisions which now are destroying our corporate soul.

  6. The sad truth is that in the vast majority of our wars, our soldiers didn’t die “defending our principles”, they only died for the purpose of imposing our ideology and economic interests on other countries. The only possible exception since the Civil War would be WWII, and my mother, who lived through it, didn’t even think that was the case then.

  7. Once again, the right wing controls the narrative. Those paying attention know that Kaepernick originally didn’t take a knee. He remained seated on the bench. After speaking with a veteran, who told him that he and his fellow servicemen would take a knee to honor the fallen, Kaepernick began taking a knee to honor the veterans, while protesting the treatment of African-Americans by police. His protest displayed respect for the ideals the flag supposedly represents. For that, he was blackballed. Meanwhile, a President who disrespects everything the flag stands for, uses his bully pulpit to demean the protests and the protestors.

    The left needs a better advertising firm.

  8. I would love to see strong intelligent people take a knee during the anthem at the games this Fall. Heck, they could start doing this at baseball games now.

  9. BobG.; are any students in any schools; public, private or religious, being taught the National Anthem today? And exactly who was the patriot to decided Rosanne Barr would sing the National Anthem at an opening major league baseball game? If you remember, she ended the Anthem with an obnoxious spit,but she was a major celebrity at that time…and if I remember, she did know all the words. “We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!” but which direction are we headed?

  10. Three cheers for JoAnn Green and her front lawn signs. It’s called “Pushing Back”; America needs more of it IMHO.
    How about “Hypocrisy” signs on church front lawns? Jesus and Nancy might endorse that. Marv might like “Fascism” bills pasted over signs that read “Post no Bills”.
    Note Patmcc’s heavy remark “The games are totally pointless but that is another issue.” A lawn sign needed for that and “Toxic GOP” signs to spring up everywhere in October, 2018.

  11. Peggy and Marv: “The left needs a better advertising firm.”

    Seems to me Donald Trump does more for the left just by tweeting and opening his mouth than he does for the right.

  12. As the media reports that pres Trump honors the fallen on Memorial Day I think: He’s a draft dodger. Is there anything more hypocritical that he can do? Then I remember that he wil always find a way.

    I’m a Vietnam veteran. My thought is war (especially Vietnam and all that followed) is only an acknowledgement of the failure of diplomacy or an opportunity for the politically-connected to make a few more bucks.

  13. Larry writes, “The sad truth is that in the vast majority of our wars, our soldiers didn’t die “defending our principles,” they only died for the purpose of imposing our ideology and economic interests on other countries.”


    In making that very point yesterday, a veteran and his buddy told me that I would be very fortunate to live to see Tuesday. I guess those who chose the military as a profession expect respect. More like, demand it.

    It’s 2018, and we are still having this conversation. Colin is still unemployed, and the white NFL owners declared how racist they are to their fan base. Except for the owner of the Jets. #Courage

    Sadly, when I think of Memorial Day and the military, my mind cannot move past Vietnam. We drafted young men to fight for a fraudulent war. Many died or became hooked on drugs to escape the shithole they were forced to endure.

    On this day, I bow for those ordinary men and women who were drafted against their will and died in vain for the US Empire.

    The state and media narrate a story which is bogus. Imagine that!

  14. Larry and Todd; they also fought and died or returned different men and women from those who left home, so much money could be made. And they didn’t get a dime of it while the war mongers got much richer.

    The players do make money, they “play for pay”, their owners make even more money but somehow they are declared in need of and deserving of our tax dollars for support which is badly needed elsewhere and by those much more deserving. Just sayin’! They are still deserving of our support for their freedom of speech and form of religious expression.

  15. we live to breathe a American dream, while many see little past thier fences,(like north dakota) i have, raised in newark,n.j. from birth,to 13, a few eye opening years with a new military step dad, norfolk,va, then arriving in calif,the day of the sylmar earthquake,welcome to calif.. i didnt last long,at a week turned 17,in bakerpatch ca,i joined the navy,1/72.. i figured vietnam was more enticing than bakersfield. point, i just wanted to start my life. as i look back, the people,the places,the little things,and the many issues i touched on with working class, a white boy with a aggresive workstyle. i want to take this moment to thanks someone,and say to all, i would have never been so greatful to America,and its complete diversity to see life has many facets, and others who,like myself, worked their ass off, for a better life. I have no investments,dont own a home,and little in the bank. but,my life is very complete,knowing i never had to kick another person,freely handed my paycheck to a single mom i never knew,and would help my neighbor,without asking.i still managed to see,America,worth the sacrifice,im ready to make. i grew up around ww2 and korean vets,the 50s/60s i would listen,and i would take stock, as they were a few generations from being a immigrant,,they and many they knew,made a sacrifice to us all,to free europe and the pacific,from a major mistake.those i would like to thank,as i truly beieve,they made me as i am today,from conversation,listening,and reading the history that led to,those world wars,korea,and the American principles they,bestowed upon me, Thanks..

  16. Once again, Trump and the NFL prove P.T. Barnum’s adage: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

  17. I tell people who are listening that I did not volunteer to go to the South Pacific in WW II to fight for Roosevelt or Truman or even the flag, but rather for the defense of principles undergirding our democracy against the forces of fascism. The flag is a mere ornament thought to embrace such principles but is in and of itself only fabric and has been since Betsy Ross; it is the hidden from sight principles it embodies that should be worshipped, and that is what I think about when saluting the flag.

    I worship no man or woman, especially a draft dodger like our present occupant of the Oval Office, an oblivious Oz soon to be unmasked. So let us salute the flag this Memorial Day for what it stands for, and defend what it stands for “from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

  18. It’s unlikely to me that us white folk have experienced the sting of racism like the folks who have been victimized by it. I believe that disqualifies us from judging the feeling that motivates these protests.

    To be fair it seems like millionaire 300 lb black muscle men and women also might not have a lot of experience with it but if they feel inclined to contribute their celebrity and wealth in support of their brothers and sisters more power to them.

    In fact I would bet that what motivates in many people the fear of protests like this is the fear of unification of darker than white skinned people.

  19. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.
    Sydney J. Harris
    As a Vietnam War Combat Infantryman (Draftee Type), I would be hard pressed to be a patriot as I am ashamed of my country. We have not won a war since 1945, yet for most of time since then we have engaged in a variety of military actions all over the world. It is not that I am ashamed we have not won a war since 1945, it is the unbridled brutality we have unleashed on the world. We committed the most unspeakable crimes in Vietnam. Read – Then the Americans Came: Voices From Vietnam by Martha Hess.

    “My country right or wrong; when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right.” Carl Schurz
    Once the Vietnam War was lost, we had our own American “stab in the back” myth., i.e., the anti-war movement corrupted the warrior ethos and brought about our defeat. The military was exalted and the politicians condemned for bending to the anti-war movement. The Vietnam War become the “noble cause” for the Neo-Cons. The Neo-Con theme was the anti-war movement was deluded at best, traitors at worst.

    Today, we no longer “win” wars and come home, our soldiers are warriors like some video game, they are sent out over and over again until their expiration date comes up. The expiration date can be death, physical or mental disablement.

    Those on the home front, the rabid reactionaries, foam at the mouth, and rage on about patriotism when the NFL Players take a knee. They stand for the national anthem and then sit their fat asses down and have beer and think they have done their part for god and country.
    As the reporter and political commentator Andy Rooney has said: those who die in wars don’t “give” their lives for their country; rather, their lives are taken from them.

  20. $$$$ prevail in the U.S. not FREEDOM.

    “Freedom for Sale: Why the World is Trading Democracy for Security” by John Kampfner (Basic Books, New York, 2010):

    “Democratic liberalism v. authoritarianism—the ideological divide that defined the 20th century. But when the Cold war ended, “the end of history” was proclaimed. Soon the fires of freedom would burn worldwide, the experts said. And where the markets were freed , human rights would inevitably follow.

    OR NOT. In the last twenty years, nations including India, Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates have disproved the idea that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked. Emerging middle classes have proven themselves all to willing to sacrifice certain democratic rights—INCLUDING FREE SPEECH, AN OPEN MEDIA, AND FREE ELECTIONS—in exchange for prosperity. But they are not alone. We are doing it. Alarmingly. WESTERN DEMOCRACY has adopted some of the attributes of that AUTHORITARIANISM.” [inside front cover]

    This book was published before Donald Trump came to power. In the past 18 months, Trump has effectively neutralized his two most potential enemies; the American Jews by moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; and the African-Americans with muffling the voices of the most powerful members of their community, the NFL millionaires.

    A most important book, “Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook” by Edward Luttwak (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968):

    “If we were revolutionaries, wanting to change the structure of society, our aim would be to destroy the power of some of the political forces, and the long and often bloody process of revolutionary attrition can achieve this. OUR PURPOSE IS, HOWEVER, QUITE DIFFERENT: we want to seize power WITHIN the present system, and we shall only stay in power if we embody some new STATUS QUO supported by those very forces which a revolutionary may seek to destroy. Should we want to achieve fundamental social change we can do so after we become the government. This is perhaps a more efficient method (and certainly a less painful one than that of a classic revolution.

    Though we will try to avoid all conflict with the ‘political’ forces, some of them will certainly oppose a COUP. But this opposition will largely subside when we have substituted our new STATUS QUO for the old one, and can enforce it by our control of the state bureaucracy and security forces. THIS PERIOD OF TRANSITION, which comes AFTER we have emerged into the open and before we are vested with the authority of the state is the most critical phase of the coup. [ This is the phase we have been in for some time] We shall then be carrying out the dual task of imposing our control on the machinery of state, while at the same time using it to impose our control on the country at large. Any RESISTANCE to the COUP in the one will stimulate further resistance in the other and if a CHAIN REACTION develops the COUP could be defeated.

    Our strategy, therefore, must be guided by two principal considerations: the need for maximum speed in the transitional phase, and the need to NEUTRALIZE FULLY the forces which could oppose us both before and immediately after the COUP” p. 58

    “Remember the Alamo”

  21. This memorial day, giving tribute to our fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our American freedoms is a reminder of what those freedoms are. My parents both served in WW11, and let us know in general what it was about. Mom was a nurse in a war zone, and took care of former prisoners of war. They told us how bad things could get. The Authoritarian agenda of the current administration is pushing toward that direction. Civil opposition are our methods to fight their movement. Some-one accused me of trying to be a soothsayer, but I wouldn’t put it past 45 to order his “military Parade” on Nov. 11th (Veterans Day) to take over the Capitol Building. If Republicans loose a lot of the mid-terms, that would be an alternative way to attempt a coup! I still hope it won’t get to that point!

  22. Kathy,

    “Some-one accused me of trying to be a soothsayer, but I wouldn’t put it past 45 to order his “military Parade” on Nov. 11th (Veterans Day) to take over the Capitol Building.”

    What’s wrong with being a soothsayer? It sounds like jealousy to me; a cover-up for the lack of perception.

  23. We owe a great deal to the World Wars but they also were the inadvertent source of much of our dysfunction since. They were clearly noble wars that had to be fought out of moral necessity. The Allies saved the part of the world we cared about from a great deal of tyranny.

    One of the unfortunate consequences was that we got to thinking that all wars were noble which is about as far from truth as it’s possible to get. Another is our delusion that unlimited growth was both good and achievable, neither of which is true.

    The balance of good and bad though should not detract at all from the memories of those who scarificed much for the precious freedom of so many.

  24. I fully understand and agree with the dichotomy Professor Kennedy explains that a private enterprise or company or corporation can’t violate the First Amendment because the Bill of Rights only prohibits the Federal Government (and by incorporation via the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause also state and local governments).

    But here’s the thing. Are the NFL and the individual franchises really “private organizations?”

    The answer is likely (at least the court’s would likely so hold) they are.

    BUT, for years the NFL, as an enterprise, had tax exempt status (which it “voluntarily” gave up in 2015 under Congressional pressure).

    As then Senator Richard Blumenthal of Conn. wrote in 2015:

    “The NFL’s sacrifice of its tax exempt status seems more like a PR stunt than a real gain. The tax-exempt status produces a pittance compared to its Congressionally-granted antitrust exemption –- enabling billions in broadcast revenue. The NFL is exempted from laws that govern every other industry and business entity, not to mention huge benefits in state and local subsidies and sweetheart stadium deals.”

    That’s right in addition to the anti-trust exemption, almost every NFL franchise and owner has been given huge amounts of taxpayer money and public land, and tax breaks and subsidies to locate their franchise or keep that franchise in cities. In reality, the NFL is a government and taxpayer supported “industry.” And as such, they should be treated the same as a government entity when it comes to the Bill of Rights.

    I realize I’m “tilting at windmills” that aren’t going to tilt.

  25. Thank you Gerald,

    We all have our views on this country and its role in the world and how it falls short of the very noble ideas that were behind its creation just as any other nation does. Today though, we should set that all aside and think of those who gave their lives in the defense of this nation and those like Gerald, my own father, and countless others that went to war to defend this country, risking their lives and forever scarring their psyches via what they saw and experienced that no one should ever have to live through.

    Today of all days, we need to focus on them, not the politics, not the debates on whether this war or that war were wrong since all wars are wrong. Some of the greatest pacifists I’ve ever met were those that actually witnessed war firsthand and who never wanted to see their own children or anyone else’s experience what they experienced on the battlefield wherever it might have been. Those that enlisted or were drafted did their duty the best they could under some of the most horrendous circumstances imaginable and we should honor them for doing their duty. They did it for this country, their families, their communities but in the long run they did what they did for each other.

    That’s why veterans have what amounts to an uncommon bond it is hard to describe any one that has not served even more so for those that have actually served in combat and put their lives on the line for each other day in and day out. These are the people we need to be thinking about today not those that sent them there not the political debates over whether it was right or wrong or a lot of after the fact notions and revisionist histories of things that occurred as they occurred where people did the best they could given the circumstances they faced.

    These are the people we should honor today, particularly those that died in the service of this country and for all of us. So when we go to the picnics, the family gatherings, or just have a nice day off we should think of them and mourn the fact that they are not with us today to be able to do the same thing that their forbearers did for them. There is a long and storied heritage of heroism that permeates American history, one individual after another – all Americans.

  26. Demented people believe that there is no room in this exceptionally perfect country for improvement, so anybody who protests must be the enemy. Those who read a newspaper more than once a year recognize that the number of deeply serious problems that we mostly ignore is in the scores nationally, and in the dozens in all 50 states. And they are cumulative. I’m still trying to understand how such a perfect country managed to kill 58,000 soldiers to no purpose in Vietnam and 4500 more in Iraq (for the sake of our sanity, let’s ignore those we maimed with napalm and the hundreds of thousands we forced from their homes) for equally opaque reasons. How did America’s leaders become so comfortable with gratuitous slaying of its citizenry? Isn’t the right to life the most fundamental right of all?

    My hat is off to every football player and every citizen working to lower the number of deaths by cop of people whose only crime was being born to parents of a dangerous color. America will be a step closer to reclaiming greatness when we cease and desist in our race-based killing. I offer nothing but utter contempt to those who, like our president, try to turn the issue into one not of values, but of respect for a piece of colored cloth.

  27. For over 20 years I served and today I morn the loss of many who served with me and those who died before and I grieve for those who will die in the future.
    My commitment to this country is not based on a piece of cloth but on a principle that the NFL players represent NOT the stupid policy of the owners.
    Tim Tebow can kneel and we say zip except to sigh. Black players rightfully kneel for justice and we get assaulted. 45 brings fear and hate to our country.

  28. Today, one of the least respected laid the wreath at that hallowed place to honor the most respected. Would that just some of their honor, dignity, and pride could have passed from them to him.

  29. Let’s be honest as the Memorial Day celebrations end…… 45 is DISHONORABLE. He’s a DISGRACE and beneath it all a draft-dodging COWARD.

    I was thinking, yesterday, of my intern, Allen Clark, the author of “Wounded Warrior, Healing Warrior.” I had been an institutional analyst for an investment firm, back in Dallas in ’68. Allen, a West Point graduate, had lost both of his legs when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. My eight years, as a reserve officer had already ended. I wasn’t called up for active duty as an artillery officer. Who knows what would have happened to me if I had fought in Vietnam like Allen?

    I wonder what his feelings were, yesterday, as Donald Trump continues to erase much of the good we have done as a country through the sacrifices that have been made by those like Allen?

    “Shivers go down my spine,” thinking of what must be going through his mind.

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