I am sitting in my parents’ living room, my daughter tracing the perimeter of an area rug with toy cars. “Vroom, vroom!” she says as my sister tells us that the first two of many football teams have linked arms during the national anthem, some players standing, while others are kneeling. I feel pride swelling in my belly as I see players from the Jaguars and Ravens exercise their freedom of speech. Some men lift their faces to the sky, eyes closed and singing the words to the song, others hang their heads. Each person makes his personal decision, while doing so next to his fellow teammate.
When I heard of Donald Trump’s comments on Friday night that NFL owners “get that son of a bitch off the field right now” and fire any player who takes a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner, I became enraged. To be clear, this is not about whether or not we agree or disagree with, for example, not standing for the pledge or kneeling during the national A=anthem. Like many people, I shudder when I have to accept that disgusting people like Milo Yiannopoulos is afforded the right to hold a rally where he can spread his vicious ideology. I cringe when I feel utter disbelief that our president can do the same with his Twitter account. But that’s the First Amendment. It’s the same freedom that allows me to be a writer. Like it or not, we cannot apply sanctions to the First Amendment simply because we disagree with the content of the message. It’s a constitutional right.
That’s why when my sister said that the Pittsburgh Steelers –– our home team –– would be staying in the locker room during the anthem, I was initially proud that they were making a statement in the name of our American freedoms.
But then I read head coach Mike Tomlin’s statement.
To claim that “we’re not participating in the anthem today, not to be disrespectful for the anthem, to remove ourselves from the circumstance” is a cop out. Staying in that locker room is just as un-American as requiring that people stand for the national anthem. The choice is exactly what’s at stake here, Mike Tomlin. And how is this a team decision that is “100 percent” if you exercised your patriotic support by standing on the sidelines during the anthem while your team sat inside?
I think Tomlin’s thought process was genuine, that the idea of removing the team from the controversy seemed safer, less divisive. That the feeling of being required to choose a side fucking blows. That’s the decision that a lot of people make –– blind ignorance. They aren’t racist, but they don’t denounce racism. They are not supportive of people who heil Hitler, but they stand alongside them, perhaps because they are one of those “good people” on that particular side.
But guess what? There’s too much on the line to stay quiet. Without Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony. Frederick Douglas, Lucy Stone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Shepard, John Lewis, Desmond Tutu, Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela, Betty Friedan and as of Friday John McCain saying NO FUCKING WAY simply because they could not stand idly by in the face of injustice –– whether it be civil rights, same sex marriage or healthcare being stripped from people who need it –– we would all be suffering. Some of us a lot more than others. (By the way that list is far from complete and certainly in no specific order.)
Mike Tomlin and crew, take a cue from Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey who said in his statement: “What makes this the greatest country in the world are the liberties it was founded upon and the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner. Through important dialogue with our players and team, this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future.”
UNIFICATION. What these team members found is that by exchanging dialogue, they were able to feel LESS AT ODDS because they communicated. Because they said, hey, you do you and while I might be standing, I will do so with my hand on your back, with my arm linked in yours.
People keep saying keep politics out of sports –– for the most part, it pretty much was until our commander in chief challenged their First Amendment rights. This is the time to MAKE YOURSELF A PART OF THE CIRCUMSTANCE. Do you have to do it by standing on platforms or bringing it to your workplace? Absolutely not. That’s your American freedom. But when you see the freedoms of other people being challenged, you absolutely, positively have to call bullshit. You have to say something right then and there, or call your lawmakers (hopefully change-makers), or sign the petition, or reach out and hold their fucking hands.
As I watched Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva proudly stand and sing the Star-Spangled Banner (the only player to do so), hand over his heart, I felt the same pride as I did when I watched the Chicago Bears lineup link arms in solidarity. He peacefully protested his team’s poor decision, and proudly stood to honor his flag and anthem.
Because it’s his goddamn American right to do so.