I’ve been vocal in the past about the debate over NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling in protest during the national anthem, but now it’s grown to a new level and so I feel compelled to speak out again. As a combat veteran who played football for much of his life and coached young players, and now as an activist who has been in the media, scrutinized, criticized, and even threatened, I think I have a somewhat unique perspective.
I support Kaepernick’s goals, and his right to peacefully protest, 100 percent. As a vet, and especially in times like these, I understand and appreciate the overwhelming importance of free speech.
I also respect Kaepernick’s right to protest the anthem as his chosen tactic. There were of course other options that would have also captured attention and generated much-needed debate and conversation, but it was his choice.
If he had asked me (and he didn’t), I would have advised him to choose a different form of protest.
Yes, of course he can kneel during the anthem. He also could have burned the flag. It’s not the same, of course, except that both are extremely controversial forms of protected speech that hit a special national sweet spot of emotional reactions. And so knowing the country in the ways I do, and knowing so many military, first responders, conservatives and older people as I do, I would have advised Kaepernick to pick another form of protest that wouldn’t have automatically pushed away a high percentage of the people who needed to hear his message the most. By choosing the anthem, in my opinion, the debate is now unfortunately too often about Kaepernick’s tactic and not enough about his message — one that is vital, urgent, and overdue.
When I was recently invited to participate in a rally for Kaepernick in New York, I respectfully declined. The members of the organization I lead all served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are opposed to his actions and many support him. It’s a divisive issue for America and for our veterans. However, I think most believe in his right to do it, even those who despise him for doing it. Given that I support Kaepernick’s general message and goals for awareness of race relations and police brutality, I wish he chose something I could do in solidarity.
I’m not kneeling during the anthem. Ever. That’s my right.
I know many of his teammates and supporters feel the same way. It’s not about me, especially given my comparatively privileged position as a white man in America, but if he chose something I could do too, I’d be all in. And I think millions of others would be too. If he comes up with a new tactic — one that allows me to show support for him and his message, without connecting it to the anthem and the flag — I’ll likely be doing it at the next New York Giants home game. And maybe at a West Point home game, too. That’s an opportunity that still exists that’s worth noting. Remember the iconic image of West Point players charging onto the field carrying a French flag after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015? Imagine the power of a display from both teams of future military officers at the Army-Navy football game on national TV this December.
All that said, Kaepernick has a right to do this his way. Few rights in America are more sacred than free speech. And for the president of the United States to call him names, in an aggressive, nasty way, is beneath the office and bad for America. If Kaepernick’s activism has divided many Americans, Trump’s divisive reaction was like driving a spike into a simmering, rising oil well of anger and division. That’s what Trump does. It’s his chosen tactic in support of his political goals and he chooses to double-down on them — just like Kaepernick.
But, this is America. Any attempt by our president to squash free speech is dangerous, especially now, when directed at a black man, after Charlottesville, and as so many Americans work to claim the moral high ground against tyrannical adversaries like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. We need tolerance, understanding, respect and unity. Most of all, we need calm from our commander-in-chief. We need a leader who brings the temperature down, not one who cranks it up.
The days of just enjoying Sunday football without politics and debate are long gone, with brain injuries like C.T.E., racial tensions, war overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq (remember those?), and the now almost weekly natural or other disaster. Just as the good old days of the way America used to be — riddled with repression and exclusion for so many citizens — are long gone. Football has always been intertwined with our politics, from the earliest days of the sport to Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School vs West Point game at Yankee Stadium in 1912. The story of football is one of racially-segregated teams, Vietnam, publicly-funded stadiums, Title IX, national unity after 9/11, Pat Tillman, JJ Watt’s hurricane fundraiser, and even playing the national anthem at games to begin with. If your eyes are open and you know your history, you know we can’t separate politics from football any more than we can separate it from war. To expect otherwise is naive.
This is where we are now with football and America. And it’s long past time to face the moment and push it forward peacefully, respectfully, and productively. This is not the time to stand in front of the freight train of progress and the march toward equality. Progress and free speech always win. Eventually. Especially in America. In the long term, our president — not Kaepernick, Steph Curry, Lebron James, or half the NFL — will learn that hard lesson most painfully in the way he is judged by his people and by history.
I have taken a knee before. When I was in the Army, any time we halted on a patrol, we’d take a knee. You kneeled, in part, to take a rest, but also to lower your profile to lessen the likelihood of having your head shot off.
When I played football, if a coach told you to take a knee, it was because he wanted you to take a break. Get some water, rest, and get your energy back before the next big quarter or next important drive. Sometimes, a coach pulled you out of the game and told you to take a knee because you made a bad play or threw an interception that set the team back.
That’s what the president has done by attacking Kaepernick and his right to express himself. It’s a terrible play, and a bad decision. It’s the Mark Sanchez butt fumble of political decisions.
A football player who takes a stand he believes in to make America better by kneeling during the national anthem is not threatening the ideals I stood for when I joined the military. What threatens the ideals I enlisted in the Army to protect is our commander-in-chief trying to crush free speech and peaceful political activism. That is what disrespects our flag and the anthem for which I will always chose to stand. The one American who really needs to take a knee right now is not another football player, it’s the president.
Paul Rieckhoff is CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA. He is an Iraq veteran, and the author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective.”