NFL protests are one hot potato

There are good and bad reasons for allowing kneeling during the national anthem. The NFL players gave bad ones and are embarrassing themselves.

In 2009, the NFL required players to be on the field for the anthem. The justification for playing it and requiring players to be on the field is twofold. First, it honors the United States. Second, the anthem honors veterans, especially combat veterans and veterans killed in action.

Last year, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others kneeled during the anthem. Kaepernick felt that the U.S. oppresses black people and allows police to disproportionately kill unarmed black men. Last month, Donald Trump suggested that NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem because they disrespect U.S. heritage.

Two weeks ago, in response to his comments, more than 200 mostly black players in the NFL sat or kneeled during the national anthem. Other players linked arms with their teammates or raised fists. Three teams stayed in the locker room. The players gave three reasons for doing so. They wanted to (1) support freedom of speech, (2) express their disapproval of Trump’s criticism of the black players who had been protesting, and (3) oppose Trump’s intimidation.

The free-speech concern is mistaken. The NFL is not a state actor. As a result, it may, and often does, interfere with players’ and teams’ speech. The concern for Trump’s criticism of Kaepernick et al. begs the question because it assumes that the original protests were plausible and respectful. This is precisely what Trump denies. Criticism of Trump for intimidation is also off base because he didn’t threaten anyone.

The concern over police killing unarmed black men is mistaken. Consider data from The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, while blacks commit roughly half of all murders, assaults, and robberies, they were only 24 percent of those killed by police. Philosopher Philippe Lemoine points out that the likelihood of unarmed black men being killed by the police (16 in 2016) is roughly the rate of their being struck by lightning. Similarly, a widely cited 2016 study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that blacks were not more likely to be shot by police. They were more likely to be subject to police violence (for example, touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground, or pepper-sprayed) even after controlling for where, when and how they encounter the police, but that’s a different issue.

The reason the NFL, leagues, and schools should allow the kneeling, sitting, and raised fists during the anthem is that we want people’s expression of patriotism or support for veterans to be voluntary. Requiring people to salute the flag in order to play football is about as voluntary as making workers pay union dues as a condition of employment.

The notion that people at sports events should stand for the flag to celebrate veterans is yet another error. First, veterans have not contributed more to America than have other groups such as farmers and intellectuals. As a result, they should not be singled out for special recognition or gratitude. Without farmers, most Americans would have starved long ago. It is simply not true that the well-being of U.S. citizens depends more on veterans than farmers. Without intellectuals, the U.S. would not have existed. Nor would it have been free or had the technology to effectively fight wars, cure and treat disease, or grow large amounts of food.

Rare is the individual veteran who made a big difference in the war effort. Those who did, for example, General Patton or Admiral Nimitz, were few and far between and contributed as leaders rather than as soldiers or sailors.

Being in the military is more dangerous than most jobs, although it is likely safer than being a logger or fisherman. In any case, focusing on the danger of a profession misses the point of why we shouldn’t be more grateful to veterans than to other workers who keep us alive, free, well-fed, and educated. A job carries with it a package of costs and benefits. Different packages are attractive to different people. Members of the military do not deserve special recognition or gratitude if they picked a job package they most preferred.

Being in the military has some significant costs. These include the chance of being killed or severely injured and lengthy time away from one’s family. It also includes the chance of being morally compromised by being asked to fight in useless wars (consider, for example, World War I) or in unconstitutional ones that require soldiers to violate their enlistment oath (consider, for example, Clinton’s war on Serbia and Obama’s war on Libya). The benefit includes being part of a band of brothers, valuable training, opportunity for leadership, high pay (consider early retirement), travel, adventure, getting in shape, and so on. Whether it is better to be a soldier or factory worker depends on an individual’s preference. If some people opt for the military package over the factory package because they prefer it, this is not something for which we should be grateful.

The notion that people should stand not for veterans or combat veterans, but only for those who were killed, is at odds with much that is said and done during the national anthem. In any case, we shouldn’t be grateful to veterans who were injured or killed. To see why this is mistaken, consider people who win a lottery. The lottery is fair if it was reasonable to both parties when the ticket was purchased. If it was reasonable to both, then neither party need be grateful to the other. Next consider a reverse lottery. Here players get a good sum of money in return for taking a small risk of death or severe injury. Again, if reasonable, no gratitude is owed. Military service is like a reverse lottery.

The reason the NFL should allow people to kneel, sit, or raise their fist during the national anthem is that we want expressions of support for the military and patriotism to be voluntary rather than just another job requirement.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia professor. Send comments to