We're Missing The Point Of Anthem Protests

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I was on the way to Washington, DC, of all places, when President Donald Trump said in no uncertain terms that he would prefer that an NFL owner “get that son of a bitch off of the field right now” in the event that a player should kneel during our national anthem.

It was ironic because, as he was giving the speech I was boarding what's called an "Honor Flight" -- a flight full of veterans who are being taken to our nation's capitol to see the monuments built in their collective honor; veterans who fought, in large part, to protect the first amendment right of "sons of bitches" so bold as to peacefully protest social issues by dropping to one knee during our national anthem.

The media coverage of the event was both exhaustive and exhausting. Everyone had a take. Sunday NFL morning show coverage had more to do with covering Trump's comments -- and the inevitable reaction from NFL players -- than the actual games being played. And rightfully so.

But I didn't write anything. I didn't tweet anything. With my friend, Brandon, a guy I've known since we were 9 years old, in town to join me for a weekend of football, I said plenty -- to him.

But I didn't write anything. And I didn't intend to.

Maybe that seems weird considering, A) I'm never short on opinions and B) It's kind of my job to write about things. But it just didn't seem worth it to me. The problem isn't the players on a knee. The problem has nothing to do with the flag. In a vacuum, the issue -- in the past 10 days or 10 months -- isn't even Trump.

The issue is social ignorance and divisiveness. Both of which seem to be fueled by Trump -- but he's not alone. More to the point, the issue is that the most ignorant, hateful, and divisive among us have absolutely no interest in hearing an opinion or a position that isn't their own. Increasingly, it feels like there is no middle -- just us versus them.

Were I to share my thoughts on the player protests, I'd be writing to likeminded, open-minded people. People who already know what I'm about to say. People like former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark or former marine and Edmond, OK, police officer Ben Daves. People like Brandon or like Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

The people I'd like to talk to -- those who have emphatically dug in their heels on the left or right peripheral -- go blind with rage at the first sight or sound of something that doesn't resonate with their pre-existing opinions and beliefs.

Ultimately, I decided to sit down and write something -- not really sure what that something would turn out to be -- if only for the long shot chance that my words might break down the walls around just one person's perspective on things. It's a decision I reached after first peppering Ben -- who, again, is a veteran, a police officer, and a member of the Edmond SWAT team -- with questions about Trump and the protests.

For the record, he, like me, is of the opinion that the president of the United States of America should act like it. Which is to say, he should not be tweeting at Steph Curry to rescind party invitations like a scorned teenager, nor should he randomly call out NFL players like a shock jock talk show host.

But that's not what ultimately pushed me to the keyboard. It was this:

"Because of your athletic background, you have far less bias of any kind than most people," he told me. "When I was in the service, I got after it with people of all races and from all walks of life. People who live in the same race bubble for most of their life don't understand."

It doesn't raise eyebrows when football players of different races, religions, or ethnicities lock arms in a display of solidarity before a game. No one thinks about it. In football, the only color that really matters is the color of the laundry being worn by the players. That sort of unity isn't seen as something that translates to society. But why not?

The men and women who fight for our freedom are not bound by the color of their skin but by the color of their flag and a love for their country. That sort of unity isn't seen as something that carries over once they're back on U.S. soil living as a civilian. In fact, in today's social climate, Ben's police uniform can often be seen as a sort of racist scarlet letter. But why?

In my opinion, the answer is a fundamental one. Athletes are outliers. Our soldiers are outliers. Learning to work and play with folks who aren't like us isn't necessarily commonplace -- even if it feels very common to us. Each of us is from some place. More often than not, that place is comfortable and filled with people who look, think, and act just like we do. Think about your hometown. How many of your friends left?

If you're like me, most of the people you went to high school with are still living in the town or neighborhood you all grew up in. Why? Because it's comfortable. People fear what they don't understand -- and come to hate what they fear. White folks who've never been outside of their white-washed comfort zones fear black folks and vice versa.

That fear breeds indignation.

As a result, we have countless subsets of human beings who refuse to put forth any effort to understand those who aren't like them. Our friends on Facebook mirror our friends in real life. We block and unfollow people who don't think like we think, and our whole world becomes one giant echo chamber.

The echo chamber is the problem. The intolerance, the ignorance, the reluctance to acknowledge an opposing perspective is the problem. But it's easier to simply yell over the words that don't match our own. That's why most people have a preferred news outlet based on social and political preferences -- as if a major network without an agenda is a thing that actually exists.

When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, it wasn't about the song or the flag or the president -- who, you'll recall, was Barack Obama at the time. The anthem was simply the vehicle he chose to open a conversation that he deemed necessary; in this case, it was a conversation regarding the treatment of minorities -- namely, black men -- in the United States.

I grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, and went to college in Oklahoma. So, needless to say, my community on social media was in a predictable uproar over the lack of appropriateness and patriotism -- but that was the point. The original protest -- and the copycat behavior thereafter -- was never meant to be appropriate. It was meant to create awareness to a perceived issue of racial injustice. Protests are, by their very nature, intended to be deemed "inappropriate" by the institution on the receiving end.

No one is saying you have to agree with Kaepernick -- or Trump or Josh Norman or the guy who lives next door. Such is the beauty of living in the United States, where the First Amendment defends free speech and entitles each citizen to his or her own opinion -- but if you've never been outside of your "bubble," as Ben put it, how would you know if you agree or don't agree? And, regardless of your position on that issue, there's no debating that this is not and has never been about active duty soldiers, veterans, or a flag, and it sure as hell wasn't about the president of the United States.

Donald Trump made it about Donald Trump by saying what he said in Alabama that day.

Trump challenged an entire league and the league stood up -- by kneeling down. I'm the grandson of a Korean War veteran. I love the United States and I respect and revere our troops. But damn if I didn't actually find the collective response of NFL players to be in some ways encouraging.

If we're being honest, the mutual support on display among men of all different races, religions, and socioeconomic upbringings was the most bipartisan display of unity that any of us has seen in the U.S. in quite a while, was it not? Love for country and empathy for your neighbor are not mutually exclusive.

Moving our country and our culture forward means accepting the fact that our own backgrounds, opinions, and prejudices are not always right in the face of wrong. You think kneeling for the flag is the wrong way to protest a social issue? That's fine. Are there better ways to get a point across -- or to make a tangible impact in the community? Certainly. But just remember: Attitude reflects leadership.

Listen. Learn. Do unto others as you would have them to do you.

We're making this harder than it has to be.

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