An Open Letter About Flags, Kneeling, Injustice, and Anthems

Subject: An Open Letter About Flags, Kneeling, Injustice, and Anthems
From: Tyler Coburn
Date: 27 Sep 2017

I see the news along with my news feeds on social media littered with articles and opinions on the daily, covering a variety of topics. I typically choose not to engage as it can get out of hand, cause people to get upset, and usually changes no one’s mind anyway. I do not get on social media looking to debate or bait others into an argument, I use it to keep up with the lives of those I know and have connected with. The National Anthem protests have been going on for over a year now, and I admit I initially dismissed Colin Kaepernick’s message as he was in the midst of losing his job and relevancy. (Semi-relevant, I am also a 49ers fan, and had just watched the team get dismantled by the ownership. Wasn’t thrilled with them) I grew to understand the meaning as time went on, and while he didn’t handle everything well, (Pig cop socks and a Fidel Castro t-shirt?? Come on, man.) those do not and should not take away from the point he was making. He did it tactfully, he did not seek attention or broadcast anything, he simply took a knee. The questions and coverage exploded more than anyone could have imagined. Fast forward to present day and while it has remained a topic of interest, it hasn’t really caught fire the way it did when it began- until now. I look at my social feeds and I see an inordinate amount of posts saying things like “stand up or leave!” “spoiled punks!” and “have some respect!” and to be completely honest, it makes me sad. Sad because people refuse to educate themselves before speaking. Sad because of the lack of empathy in my own network. Sad because these people value a symbol over human life. Sad because the man we chose as our leader, who holds the highest office with the most respect, chose to insult these men publicly with vulgar language unlike any President before him. I am not usually vocal about my beliefs other than within my own friend group. But when the misinformed, the angry, the intolerant, and the ignorant flood the internet with their outrage and hate, I feel compelled to respond. If by posting this letter I change one individual’s point of view, it will have been worth it. I also hope to encourage others that agree with me to speak out as well, not simply sharing and retweeting the voices of others. This is not a passive aggressive “here’s my two cents” piece, but rather an active attempt to open minds, or at least encourage tolerance.

I want to start by dissecting a few of the more common phrases I’ve seen used against the players.

“They should do it on their own time, not at their place of employment!” and “If you or I tried to protest at our job we’d be fired!” For the love of God, please, enough comparing professional athletes to your own career. First, I think if you kneeled or prayed or handed out awareness flyers (trying to find a comparable form of protest in a normal job here) before your shift, I doubt most employers would care. It is not affecting your performance, just as this is not affecting the players performance. Second, athletes have historically used sports to spread their message, whether that is religion, disaster relief, or social justice. Telling them to “stick to football” is your prerogative, but they are in no way required to. I don’t understand why athletes aren’t allowed to have opinions but mailmen, doctors, and restaurant workers get to. From Muhammad Ali to 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, there is a long history of activism in sports. Finally, considering the NFL is not enforcing any rules requiring them to do a specific behavior during the National Anthem, Trump and every other person calling for them to be fired is just absurd. For crying out loud, the teams didn’t even take the field for the National Anthem in prime time games until 2009.

“Just play the game” They do play the game, and it is not delayed, affected, or altered by this protest. Half the time we don’t even witness the protests, and the only reason we know who kneeled and who didn’t is ESPN and other media outlets discussing and highlighting it for hours a day. If all you care about is the game and want none of the protest, maybe just tune in at kickoff and don’t watch Sportscenter?

“Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross.” While that is a perfectly honorable way of life, just saying this phrase should open your eyes to the fact that some things mean more to some people than to others. Assuming everyone has attached the same connotation to the American Flag is similar to assuming everyone respects and lives by the Bible. It’s not the case, and those people are to be treated no differently in our country because of it. Attempting to link politics and religion is and always will be a losing battle as well.

“Stand for the flag or get out of this country!” Wow, the ignorance and intolerance entrenched in this sentence should go without saying. I hope these people are just regurgitating something they heard elsewhere and don’t actually feel this way. If you truly think that someone trying to better our country for those at risk of being wrongfully harassed or even executed should be forced to leave our country, then there may be no reasoning with you. Each and every one of us is truly privileged just to live here in this country, and just because you and I were born here does not make us one minuscule amount better or more deserving of freedom than someone born somewhere else. So when you spout off exclaiming that they shouldn’t be welcome in America just because they are fighting for the equality of other Americans, it exposes an unparalleled sense of entitlement served with a side of hypocrisy. This brings up another issue for me though. The fact that people actually believe that anyone should be required to stand and salute our country’s flag is dangerous. It may sound extreme, but at this point nothing is off the table. Blind and/or forced nationalism is a characteristic of fascism. Couple this with closed borders, travel bans, deporting immigrants and dreamers, and not denouncing white supremacists, and this has the potential to be the slipperiest of slopes.

“How exactly are rich, spoiled athletes oppressed?” This one. This one is my favorite. To begin, not one of these athletes has claimed that they personally are being oppressed. Since Kaepernick took a knee for the very first time, he stated that he was against the oppression of black people and people of color in America. They are protesting on behalf of those without the voice or platform to do it on their own. But I guess even if you want to ignore that fact, even those “spoiled athletes” are not exempt from wrongfully having a gun pointed at them. (Michael Bennett anyone?) And much to the delight of all you #StandForTheAnthem’ers, Colin Kaepernick is still without an NFL job despite being an undoubtedly superior quarterback than at least seven starters and virtually every backup.

Shifting gears, I’d like to voice my own thoughts as this is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

To love your country does not mean you must accept it as it is. Criticizing our government and fighting back against oppression is the very act that drove us to independence. We must continue to improve as a society and right the wrongs as we encounter them. Having disdain for our justice system, government, or even president, should not be met with “like it or leave it.” It should be met with discussion, and in this case, support. Controversial protests have a proven track record of changing America for the better. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not met with open arms and minds, but looking back we can all agree they led the way to better lives for others and a better America. Arguing about the method used for the protests instead of helping fight the injustice is simply nitpicking and counter effective. If you believed in a cause so vital and dear to your heart, as well as the hearts of those you love and care about, and you had the stage these men do, you would find a way to raise awareness. This has arguably been the most coverage any protest has ever received, and they’ve hurt no one in the process. I just read a post that captured it very well: “There are riots and you tell them to be peaceful. They peacefully speak out, and you tell them to be silent. They silently kneel and you tell them to shut up and do their job.” (Katey Ruth) Those who don’t want to listen will never be satisfied. By encouraging others to #BoycottNFL, you are attempting to remove the audience for the message, and effectively attempting to silence this issue once again. And to me, that is something to be ashamed of. Watch or don’t watch, that is your choice.

I don’t want to speak on behalf of a particular group of people, but I have personally witnessed very few people of color disagree with these protests. And though there are exceptions to every rule, I can only imagine that this is because they can understand and empathize with those the protest represents, even if they themselves have not been subjected to it. Most good-natured individuals are capable of empathy, but that is simply not enough to fully grasp this matter. As a white male, (yes that matters) I can never walk in the shoes of a minority. I will never fully understand the fear or worry they face on a daily basis. Whether they’re wearing a hijab or a hoodie, the looks, comments, and treatment they receive because of something completely out of their control is something a lot of us can’t imagine. And for that reason, we also cannot fully appreciate the driving force in the hearts of these players that just want to do what they can to help those in need. As someone who truly supports equality for all, I stand with those who kneel. The fact that people are so enraged about the protest of our anthem and less concerned about the egregious acts committed in this country is bewildering. This is not simply a white vs black issue, it is a good vs evil issue. Just vs unjust. When we look back at this movement years down the road, it will be clear who is right and who is wrong. Take a step back, look, and realize that if you are openly chastising these players, whether you have a point or not, you are on the wrong side of history.

I hold no ill will towards police officers. But for some it has been treated as a job when in fact it is a higher calling. Putting your life on the line to protect others. A truly honorable profession and I respect those that embody the true meaning of the badge. But with that badge comes enormous responsibility. In some cases it has become the citizens’ responsibility to be calm, collected, and professional during an incident, while officers like Jeronimo Yanez act on impulse without consequence because they were frightened of what could happen. This is utterly disgraceful and that man should not only have been terminated but incarcerated. Risk is inherently part of the job description, and while police losing their lives is a tragedy, police taking the lives of innocent people they are assigned to protect is an atrocity.

I am not here to debate whether or not you believe there is a systemic issue within our country’s law enforcement and justice system. If you still doubt this, you have far more research to do before forming a valid opinion on the NFL protests. Like it or not this is a problem in our society. If it does not affect you or you do not wish to concern yourself with it, that’s fine, move along. But to then interject when those that do care, and are affected by it draw attention to it, and rake them over the coals because you have x/y/z problem with it, is unacceptable. If you have a better form of protest to suggest, please, I’m sure it would be a welcome suggestion. However it’s hard to imagine anything at this point being as effective at drawing attention to the matter at hand as this has been. It is most certainly controversial, there is no questioning that. But when faced with the moral question of who to support, I choose those fighting for what’s right. Actual, tangible human life is infinitely more important than any flag, song, or symbol.

I have always, and likely will always stand for the anthem. To me, the flag and anthem represent America and the life I have been so lucky to have. At the same time I do understand the meaning some have attached to the anthem, particularly service men and women along with their families. It is symbolic of a lot of things, and for some it represents the sacrifice they or those they know have made. And while I think the freedoms we have, and the betterment and progression of our society as a whole is the direct result and a much better symbol of that sacrifice, you and I both have to realize that symbolism is not unanimous. I am entitled to attach whatever meaning I wish, just as you are. I am also grateful to each and every person who has dedicated their time, risked their lives, and sometimes lost their lives in the name of American freedom. We are now witnessing an example of free Americans utilizing that freedom to spread an important message, and if we disallow that freedom, we in turn tarnish the sacrifice so many have made. It makes me proud to see that there are plenty of military members that can look at this issue and see it for what it is. They understand that they fight for the Constitution and not a flag or a song. If you do a simple Twitter search for #VeteransForKaepernick, you are inundated with results of past and present service members expressing their support for this movement. Because of this, I do not respect those who have no military affiliation using our troops as a weapon in this argument as if they unanimously oppose those who kneel.

Just this morning, our tone deaf leader and Twitter hot-take specialist Donald Trump retweeted a photo of the widely respected and deeply missed Pat Tillman for publicity and likes. Tillman’s story is well-known, however his opinions and personality were recently revealed by his family who knew him best. They describe him as a man who wanted to fight injustice and make life in America a better place. He saw himself as no better than those less fortunate than himself, and wrestled with the notion that he was any more deserving of his freedom, good fortune, and privilege than anyone else. As part of the invasion of Iraq, he openly criticized the administration and their motives. The photo in question that the President retweeted included the hashtags “#StandForOurAnthem” and “#BoycottNFL.” As Patrick Redford wrote today, “To bring Tillman into the national anthem kneeling debate as someone who would have reprimanded his teammates for protesting racial injustice (and not, as cynical commenters would have you think, the military) is to completely misunderstand who he was or what he believed in.” Tillman chose to not skirt around his own self-appointed responsibility to serve our country, while our President deferred his own deployment on 5 separate occasions. Trump’s comments calling those who protest “sons of bitches” and calling for them to be fired are ignorant, uncalled for, and frankly un-American. The man who represents our country and government advocating for the silencing of free speech via punishment or termination is an absolute abomination. This post is not intended to debate the character of the President, but he injected himself to this viral discussion in an effort to regain approval of the citizens using a fallen veteran (incorrectly) as his propaganda. And to me that is despicable.

Please, if you didn’t agree before, reconsider. There is always room on the right side of history for those who want to be there. If you still disagree, I politely ask that you rethink your approach to the subject. I am not telling you to be quiet, I am asking that you refrain from name calling, insults, calling for their jobs, and calling for their citizenship. Voicing your opposing opinion only distracts and belittles the tragedies those victims and their families have experienced. While you have the right to disagree, calling for their jobs and/or citizenship makes you guilty of disrespecting the foundation of our country's values a million times more than a silent protest during the National Anthem.

I thank each person who took the time read this letter and give it honest thought. Here’s to equality for all, and civil discussions on how to get there.

Tyler Coburn