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.