A controversy over a year-long national anthem protest heated rapidly over the weekend. The national anthem protest began in 2016 by football player Colin Kaepernick, who chose to sit during the pregame performance of the Star-Spangled Banner to highlight racial injustices and police brutality. After speaking with Green Beret Nate Boyer, he and fellow athlete and teammate Eric Reid, began kneeling during the anthem, rather than sitting. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid writes in an op-ed to “The New York Times. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
While the protest was noticed and drew strong emotions–both for and against such a gesture–it did not gain widespread popularity within the NFL until President Trump’s comments singling out the protesters over the weekend. Trump, during a political rally in Alabama, called for the firing of NFL players who participated, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!'”
By Sunday, teams, owners, and coaches across the NFL were deciding how they would respond. Those with military affiliations, like Alejandro Villenueva (an Army Ranger who stood for the anthem but then acknowledged his presence during the song was a mistake) and Bruce Maxwell (the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem who is also a military kid) found became lightning rods for both “sides.”
Whether kneeling, standing, locking arms, or simply not appearing on the field, the athletes’ postures and positions sparked a discussion that led away from racial justice and police brutality and morphed into a discussion on patriotism, which often cites respecting the military as a reason to stand for the anthem.
With that in mind, we decided to take a close look at a few responses from the military community. (Of course, this isn’t an inclusive list of every service member, spouse, and military-connected politician who has made a statement. This list strives to include a diversity of background, opinion, and affiliation as space and time allow.)
Gold Star families
Those who see the protest as disrespectful to the military and the country, quickly held up Gold Star widows and families. Those who lost loved ones in service to the US also entered the fray themselves, some wishing to voice their agreement, while others refused to let their sacrifices be co-opted.
Taya Kyle, wife of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, published a post on her public Facebook page titled “A Letter to the NFL.” In the piece, she admonished the NFL for what she views as creating division, saying, “You are asking us to abandon what we loved about togetherness and make choices of division.” You can read the rest of the letter here.
Pat Tillman’s widow, Marie Tillman, asked that her husband’s memory not be used for political division after President Trump retweeted a post invoking Pat Tillman. Her husband played for the Arizona Cardinals before leaving to serve in the military. He was killed in a friendly fire accident in Afghanistan in 2004. A released statement by Marie Tillman, reads in part, “The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views.” You can read the rest of the statement here.
A Gold Star daughter, Kelly McHugh-Stewart, penned an opinion piece for the New York Times, describing an NFL game she attended after her father’s death where fans changed the words, heckled the performing band, and didn’t pay attention during the national anthem. In the piece, she says about the NFL protest, “Not once during these peaceful protests have I gotten the sense that the players’ intention is to disrespect the military. Not once did I feel that they were taking my father’s ultimate sacrifice for granted. Rather, they were exercising the exact freedoms my father gave his life for.” You can read the rest of the opinion piece here.
Service members and veterans
Service members and veterans also spoke out– sometimes through just a picture–on their support or lack thereof for the anthem protests.
Black veterans, spotlighted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, explain their positions on the protests. One, William Hudson, Jr., a Vietnam War veteran, is quoted saying, “They are not disrespecting me and I don’t feel like they are disrespecting the flag. . . When I was in Vietnam fighting, I would see people burning the flag back over here. That was disrespectful. . . If anything, the football players are honoring the flag by showing what unity means.” James Allen, a Korean War veteran, agreed with the right to protest but not the method, saying, ““There are other ways to protest other than disrespect the flag. . . They have the right to protest, but not this way.” Read the entire piece here.
This week, the photo of 97-year-old World War II veteran, John Middlemas, went viral when his grandson tweeted it along with a quote from his grandfather: “Those kids have every right to protest.” Just four years ago– as a 93-year-old–Middlemas marched for civil rights and to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He attributes his belief in civil rights to the time he spent serving alongside black sailors in the Navy. You can read more about Middlemas here.
Representative Brian Mast (R-FL), who served in the Army for 12 years and lost both legs in Afghanistan, took to Facebook to call on the NFL to require respect of the national anthem. “Any player who has taken a knee to protest this great country during its anthem should already be gone,” he said. You can read the full Facebook post here.
Of course, military leaders were also questioned by the media or released their own statements on the issue. From veterans organizations to top brass, many weighed in.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in response to a question on the controversy, said, ““I’m the Secretary of Defense. We defend the country.”
Both the American Legion and VFW–two of the largest veterans organizations in America– released statements condemning the protests. The VFW’s national commander, Keith Harman, said, “There is a time and place for civil debate, and wearing team jerseys and using sporting events to disrespect our country doesn’t wash with millions of military veterans who have and continue to wear real uniforms on real battlefields around the globe.”
Denise Rohan, the first female commander of the American Legion, released a statement, saying in part, “There are many ways to protest but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one United States of America. Having a right to do something does not make it the right thing to do.” You can read more about the American Legion and the VFW’s response here.
By J.G. Noll