The news cycle over the last several days has been dominated by President Trump’s interjection into the row about NFL players refusing to stand during the national anthem. The media went into hysteria following his curse remarks, and a full blown row has gone on to develop. Turning this issue into a national political one is a great shame on so many different levels, including not least the reality that so many parts of the country are still ravaged by the devastating recent hurricanes—and all attention should really be focused on the recovery efforts, not political soundbites.
Aside from the fact that the First Amendment allows people the right to free speech and to peacefully protest whatever issue they so choose, this is not a subject that the President needed to wade into—especially for one who is so often accused of divisiveness. With the increasingly bitter partisan political discourse, it’s the last thing America needed (neither should we be mixing sport with politics in the first place).
It is, after all, a topic which should not even be political. Respecting the flag and this country quite frankly shouldn’t really be up for debate. America is far from perfect—no nation or culture on Earth has a pure untainted history without its share of demons—but our story is a unique one, and the ultimate story of a “work in progress”. Despite all the roadblocks and imperfections, the basic principles of democracy and liberty that America has promoted to the world must be treasured and cherished, no matter what ones’ political viewpoint. So many have given their lives to protect and preserve our freedoms. The same liberties that we take for granted today. And we do take living here for granted. Perhaps those people who can’t see what a privilege it is to live in America should be taken on mandatory educational tours to countries like Russia, China, the Middle East and many parts of Africa and South America—to understand what it’s like to have your free speech oppressed and be unable to say what’s on your mind without fear of authority. Speak to most people there and realize how much any of them would love to come and live in America.
Go to almost any country in the world—and the embassy with the most people lining up outside trying to get a visa, is invariably the embassy of the United States. Millions of all colors and creeds still flock here because this is a land of amazing opportunity compared to so many other parts of the world (something that all athletes earning millions of dollars should remember, while still respecting their right to protest). We are also a country known the world over for our freedoms and basic human rights. Again, not to be taken for granted.
Does this mean that any American shouldn’t be allowed to protest and talk about all the things we can make better? Absolutely not. Debate and discussion should always be happening in any healthy democracy, and few nations have come as far as the United States in bringing uncomfortable discourse to the forefront of society, trying our best to work for a better future while acknowledging our checkered past. There are indeed still a lot of injustices out there which need to be corrected. But there are far better ways to protest and make political statements than sitting down during the national anthem. My own personal opinion is that this is a deeply disrespectful thing to do. By the same token however, l still support anybody’s right to do so. I just think the NFL Players or anyone else who does this, should keep in mind that having the utmost respect for the flag and anthem is so much more than the transient politics of the day or who the President is. No President or government should be elevated to the level of being the country, and that is what’s happening now. Whether you are a fan of President Trump or not (and I myself, didn’t vote for him), please don’t elevate him to being America.
The NFL players should also understand that their fans flock to the sports stadium to do just that—watch sports. People want a break from the routine and drudgery of everyday life, to be entertained. They are not there to get dragged into politics. If you are employed by any organization in America, you are not allowed to make political statements to your customers. As a physician, I leave my politics at the door of the hospital. My patients neither want or need to be exposed to my personal viewpoints while I’m at work (neither would any organization employing me and writing my paycheck allow me to do so). That is what being a professional is all about. Or as my home team’s coach Bill Belicheck inspirationally once said: “Do your job”. There is a time and a place for politics, but in America today, it’s not on the sports field or in the workplace.
Sadly, it’s likely more and more young sports stars, testosterone flowing at the prospect of a “fight against the oppressor”, will choose not to stand for the anthem or flag ceremonies. Also of great concern is the likelihood that this will become a color issue—and yet another black-white divide in this country. People of color will come under pressure by some in their communities to follow suit in the name of “making a statement” from a young age. It could be a high school event or a graduation ceremony. This would mark a very sorry state of affairs for America. A heterogeneous nation like this can only exist if everyone unites under one common flag and shared constitution. That’s not mutually exclusive with being proud of any unique cultural heritage one may have—whether it’s Mexican, Greek or Indian. But does mean we all eventually unite in one melting pot together.
America, ultimately, is the great experiment of world history. There has never been, nor unlikely to be, another country like this. Having become a citizen a couple of years ago, I did so as someone firmly committed to what it meant to be an American. I would, if I ever had to, lay down my life to defend the principles of freedom and liberty that this country represents (and would do so for my home country of Great Britain as well). As a keen reader of history, I’m also acutely aware of America’s tumultuous journey to where we are today, and the blood that has been spilled along the way. And these are precisely the reasons why, especially as a person of color whose parents came from a Third World country, I will always stand with my hand on my heart when I hear the anthem of this great nation playing.
We should all remember that being a loyal patriot is absolutely nothing to do with loving your leader or your government. It means believing in your country, its people, and its highest ideals.
Suneel Dhand is a physician, author, speaker and consultant. Learn more about him here.