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NFL Players' Message Is Getting Lost in the Debate Over Protests

by on May 31, 2018 5:00 AM

Last week as the NFL issued a new policy for players’ conduct during the national anthem, it reopened debate about the players’ protests. From the president on down it re-ignited passions on all sides.

But lost in arguing about the protests themselves, the NFL players have lost the discussion about the very issue that started them. The anthem issue has outrun the original issue we need to address.

The United States was born of a complex and imperfect history. We aspired to freedom from tyranny. Yet while freeing ourselves of colonialism and Great Britain, we kept millions of people in the bondage of slavery for many years to come.

We are a nation born of the highest ideals, but, like all human endeavors, we’ve fallen short of perfection. Saying this is not un-American nor does it mean one doubts the United States is exceptional.

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights set our sights on the noblest horizons.  We all want our First Amendment rights, but quickly object to those who offend us by using theirs.

But the anthem/free speech debate is taking oxygen away from what some NFL players want our society to address. The issue is the racial and socioeconomic inequality of our criminal justice system. Equality is not a black or white issue, nor should it be a Republican or Democratic issue.

But the anthem protests have pitted sides against each other, becoming a distraction from the critical issue. To get the focus back on the issues of racial equality, activist NFL players may need a new game plan. It will take some thought but it can be done.

For example, players could start every post-game press conference by answering the first question or two with a response about social justice — regardless of what question is asked. Often players answer questions about a game by talking about their religion or faith, so why couldn’t they do the same thing with an issue that matters to them?

Maybe the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins or Chris Long could answer the first post-game question by stating that “We as a society must do better to advance the cause of racial and socioeconomic equality in our justice system.”

I’ve personally seen evidence of an uneven system. In college I saw how three black teammates were questioned by police when they’d done nothing to warrant suspicion. As a coach, I saw one of our black players at Penn State arrested and charged in New Jersey for a crime that he did not commit. A corrupt system arrested and charged him for a fabricated “racial” incident and felony assault. Had he not been able to fight back, he would’ve likely ended up in prison.

Now after a slew of high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police officers (black and white), NFL players spoke up to challenge the system. They decided to call attention to it by kneeling on the field. They have followed up by trying to increase dialogue and understanding with the law enforcement community.

But as the anthem protests continued, politicians playing to their base mischaracterized them as intentional disrespect for law enforcement, the military, the flag, and the memory of soldiers who died for our freedom. That approach cast the NFL players as unpatriotic and ungrateful for the good lives they have as pro athletes. A large segment of Americans agreed.

But standing for the anthem or putting on an American flag lapel pin is easy patriotism.

What is harder is having the patriotic fervor to ask your country to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, ideals which we should not delude ourselves into believing that we have already achieved.

Almost all of us here came from somewhere else. Many Americans are descended from ancestors who came bound in the holds of slave ships. Like it or not, that fact still haunts us because some in America still want to emphasize our differences over our shared humanity.

Two weeks ago, while with a number of black NFL players, I initiated discussions of the anthem debate and the issue of race.

Their opinions on the anthem protest varied. What they all agreed on was an uneven judicial system they face as black men. Even as highly-paid NFL players, when they get pulled over they are just another black man who may be subject to profiling.

With one player, I relayed my story about the last time I’d been pulled over for an expired inspection sticker. I turned the car off and put my keys and my hands on the dashboard so the officer would feel comfortable approaching the car.

The player said “I do that too. But most of the time the conversation and interaction that will ensue for you and for me as a black man will be very different.”  

His point was that it should not be.

If we are to be truly worthy of the ideals of our anthem, the flag and the Constitution, we have to do better. We have to get past arguing about protests so we can welcome the discussion of the deeper issues that must ensue.

Nothing must distract our vision on the ideals set forth centuries ago that still call us toward “a more perfect union.” For the NFL players, it may take some new game plans to get that done.


 

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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