In mid-August of 2016, Colin Kapernick, then a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit on the bench at Levi Stadium during a routine performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” prior to the team’s first preseason game. For two weeks, his actions went almost unnoticed, and nobody really seemed to care that he was sitting instead of standing. His decision to kneel during the national anthem at the third preseason game, however, sparked a massive news story that has continued to be a topic of conversation deep into the 2017 season.
In a news conference after the game, Kapernick stated that he was kneeling to “bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country,” alluding to the oppression of minority groups, an issue clearly important to him.
Conservatives criticize him. Liberals praise him. The conservatives argue that his actions disrespect the flag and the men and women who risked or gave their lives to defend it. Liberals are persistent saying that he is an American hero for making a statement to bring peace to the nation.
One argument against the protests is that Kapernick, as well as the players who followed his actions, are breaking the United States Flag Code, which was put forth by Congress in 1923. It describes everything from proper attention during the performance of the National Anthem to proper disposal of the flag. According to the Flag Code, during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” all present “should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart” and any headdress must be removed.
Clearly, the players who kneel during the national anthem break the Flag Code. However, the code also has other rules that are not as well known and are broken quite often. The American flag is not allowed to be turned into or pictured on clothing, even athletic uniforms. I am guilty of breaking this rule myself. I wear an American flag belt to class almost every day. I have several American flag T-shirts, an American flag tie, and I even have the American flag embroidered into the thumb on my baseball glove. Am I disrespecting the flag by wearing it so often? Is Michael Phelps disrespecting the flag when he receives his Olympic gold medal after swimming with the American flag on his cap? I don’t believe anyone thinks so, but according to the Flag Code, he is. For Phelps, the flag on his cap is a reason for him to beat the swimmer in the next lane. However, for Kapernick and many other NFL players, the American flag represents oppression and injustice. Interpretation of the flag is personal; everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and there may not necessarily be a right or wrong.
According to Colin Kapernick, the American flag does not represent opportunity. Apparently, it is not the symbol of the country that presented him with the gift of football, or the country that allowed him to play the game and to work and work until he reached the NFL and started as quarterback in the Super Bowl. Kapernick sees the flag as a symbol of a country that promotes hate and oppression. He does not seem to look at the situation from both sides. While America has the flaws that Kapernick pointed out, and others as well, it also allowed him to grow from a fatherless child in poverty to a conference-champion NFL quarterback, earning $43 million in his five-year career.
In my mind, the Stars and Stripes represent freedom, which is what the Bill of Rights and the other seventeen amendments present. The First Amendment grants freedom of expression, and Kapernick exercises that right. This one liberty tucked into the First Amendment is the single most important aspect of this nation, and I support everyone’s right to exercise it, even if I may disagree with the specific action involved. The Constitution is the law. The Flag Code is not even backed up by law. Nobody can be punished for breaking the Flag Code, just as no one can take away the freedom of expression that allows players to protest the national anthem. People can criticize as much as they want to, but they can’t force it to stop.
Although I do not agree with NFL players’ choices to kneel during our national anthem in the slightest, their actions do not anger me. They are simply taking advantage of their First Amendment right in order to raise awareness on an issue that they feel needs to be addressed. I am not qualified to judge whether or not their actions disrespect the flag, but the Constitution gives me the right to disagree with them on their interpretation of the flag, just as it allows the players to protest.