Back when I was teaching in South Houston I had unusually large numbers of students who were Seventh Day Adventists. They were particularly sweet, hardworking and respectful pupils who made my job so much easier. I always appreciated that their parents had taught them values that included being thoughtful and compliant with regard to my classroom rules and routines. Mixed in with them were a number of hardcore gang members who seemed ready by their very natures to challenge me and thus divert my time and attention from the task of conveying and facilitating knowledge to all of my young charges. The gang members stood out with their swagger and their stealth ways of showing their allegiances. The children devoted to their particular religious tenets made themselves known in another way that we teachers accepted not as defiance but as their right with regard to certain features of the Bill of Rights. Namely, they sat quietly in their seats each morning while the rest of us stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
It was a given that their unobtrusive gesture of belief was something to be respected and perhaps even admired, and so nobody ever questioned their right or even their intent. There were no discussions, nor judgements. Instead we simply did our thing each morning and they did theirs. For me there was something quite beautiful about the freedom of it all, and the fact that we honored their freedom without making a big deal out of it. None of those kids had to have any form of proof of their religious belief on file. They might just as well have simply been frauds who took advantage of our largesse. We understood that it was really none of our business to question their views one way or another. It simply was what it was and it all passed quickly and without incident every single morning.
Over time I worked in many different schools and there was always the accepted actuality that we would not force our own religious or political or social beliefs on our students. We were to be respectful of individual thinking one way or another, and for the most part all of my colleagues defended the freedoms of the students, mostly without fanfare or drawing embarrassing attention to students who required special dispensations. We understood the importance of being fair and impartial.
Now a huge brouhaha has been dusted up over some rather inappropriate comments from the President of the United States of all people regarding players in the NFL and other sports who choose to take a knee rather than stand for the National Anthem. It is unfortunate that our leader appears to have neglected to thoroughly read and understand the full contents of the Bill of Rights, for it is rather clear that those athletes have as much right to make a political point by refusing to stand as my students did. The President may not agree with them or even like what they are doing, but to call them “sons of bitches” and suggest that they be fired is way out of line, and all Americans should call him out for doing so, regardless of their feelings about the players’ methods or intent. The fact is that the athletes have a right as Americans to express their discontent, and instead of mocking them our leaders should be proud that the Constitution with its Bill of Rights is still working as it was intended to do.
Of course the owners of the teams also retain the ability to employ whomever they wish. Players are regularly sent packing for a host of reasons, most of which deal with their abilities to perform their duties well. In truth if one of the owners wished to require their employees to stand during the opening ceremonies of each game he/she would be well within the guidelines of employment, but they need not respond to the whims of the President in making such determinations. It was wrong of President Trump to intimidate the owners with his remarks and his tweets which were undoubtedly made to garner political capital.
The question of how best to define patriotism has been argued since the very beginnings of the United States of America. There are those whose ideas are more narrow and confining. They insist that we will work best as a republic if we all agree to always honor our country and our leaders. Others feel that what is best about America is the ability to voice concerns without retribution. They see symbolic resistance as the highest form of patriotism, for it harks back to the Founding Father’s insistence that no authoritarian government has the right to tread on the rights of the individual. Our country began with revolution against a tyrannical government. The writers of the Constitution were determined to make certain that no one individual or group would have the power to insist that we think in lockstep. In this regard President Trump has overstepped his bounds. While he too has the right to disagree with the athletes who are mounting a protest, he surely is wrong when he disparages them for exercising their rights as citizens. Furthermore, his bullying tactics with regard to the team owners are both embarrassing and questionable. He would do well to retake a Civics course before mouthing off so publicly. He might also consider reacting the way we did when I was teaching whenever we encountered individuals whose beliefs were different from ours. We always understood that it was their right to question conventional thinking, and that our duty was to provide them with a safe space for doing so.
We will each react a bit differently to the protests among our professional athletes. The Constitution provides us with the protections to do so. We may turn off the games if we feel strongly enough. We may join them in taking a knee. We may even just choose to quietly ignore the whole incident and celebrate the wondrous idea that we have the power to make our own choices regarding such things in this country. It does not defile our national honor whenever any citizen exercises his or her rights. In fact it dramatically demonstrates that we are a truly free people.
Our military has fought for liberty from the time that those first shots were fired at Lexington and Concorde. We haven’t always created a perfect form of government, but we have worked hard to make it better. We haven’t always chosen the right sides, but we have somehow been able to recover from our mistakes and improve our ways of doing things. We will never reach the goals of a more perfect union if we are unwilling to pause now and again to question the way we do things and to discuss methods for being certain that every man, woman and child has a voice and a sense of security.
Our Founding Fathers were radicals in the world in which they lived. Their ideas were audacious for the time. I suspect that if they were around to comment they would insist that the players be allowed to have their moment to shed a light on issues that worry them. They would also encourage President Trump to be less domineering and pejorative, and far more willing to stop his tirades long enough to find out why these men feel so strongly about their concerns that they are willing to endure the wrath of their fans and the leader of the nation. It’s time for all Americans to insist that our president work for the good of all, not just the few that form his base of voters. That is what our founders intended, and that is the way it should work.
Frankly I am weary and I know that most of my fellow Americans are as well. I agree with Senator John McCain that it is well past time to dispense with all of the quibbling and attempt to remember what this country is supposed to be about. It’s a watershed moment in which we must set aside our hatefulness and invective and begin again to consider the diversity of needs that we have. Most of all it should be the duty of all to protect our First Amendment rights regardless of our own beliefs, for they are far more important than pledges or anthems or routines. Sometimes in the course of human events it becomes necessary to speak out.