More Than They Can Bear
On Sunday, October 8, 2017, when the San Francisco 49ers played the Indianapolis Colts, members of the 49ers football team took a knee during the national anthem. Vice President Mike Pence walked out of the game saying, “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”
Kneeling during the national anthem spread through the NFL that year, and in subsequent years, to other major sports like the NBA.
The NFL and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’
In response to the protest in the league, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell green-lighted the singing of the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, now commonly known as the Black national anthem, at last year’s Super Bowl and again at this year’s Super Bowl LVIII. Goodell justified the implementation of the additional anthem in 2020, saying, “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country. Without black players, there would be no National Football League.”
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The irony of both the kneeling football players and Goodell’s “OK” to include another ‘anthem’ at the Super Bowl (or any football game) is that he, and especially the players, are being used as witless pawns by leftist power players who demand that we make a stark choice about the meaning of three images: our national flag, the national anthem and our athletes.
Symbols and Meaning: Unity and Freedom or Division and Tyranny?
The first two images, our nation’s flag and anthem, are either symbols of unity and freedom or, if the power players are to be believed, of division and tyranny. The second, the athlete is either an inspirational actor in a physical theater or a highly moral social justice warrior.
Images, the physical items or even mental pictures we have of the beliefs we hold, are funny things. They can carry almost any meaning we give them. What images cannot do, at least not very well, is carry more than one meaning at a time, especially among the same group of people.
The Cross’ Symbolism
Take the cross, for example. For the Romans, the cross symbolized the state’s right to punish, humiliate and kill those who challenged its authority. For the Christians (Roman or not), the cross became a symbol of an authority beyond that of any earthly power, a gateway to individual freedom and salvation. The cross, even an image of a cross, could not stand for the two contradictory meanings simultaneously. One of the meanings had to give way to the other.
The Image of the Athlete
This brings us back to the flag, the national anthem and, especially, our athletes. Throughout the history of the West, athletics have played the role of physical, rough-and-tumble theater. And theater in the West, whether it is on a stage, screen or field, has been the venue through which we Westerners work out (play out, if you like) our issues and conflicts, all while avoiding real civil strife and bloodshed. Cultures that do not have the tradition of theater, such as in the Middle East, are highly susceptible to the tyranny of the strongman, a “won’t somebody make the trains run on time!” civic despair, or they tumble, generation after generation, into civil strife and endless tribal and sectarian war.
But in the West, actors, either on the screen or on the field, take on certain roles and, with them, certain expectations from the audience. In football, the image of the athlete has come to embody many of our national aspirations, including a love of rough competition, a sense of fairness, the operation of justice and the notion that anyone, regardless of his station at birth, can, through hard work, sacrifice and discipline, rise to great heights of achievement and wealth. The National Football League is keenly aware of this image and has a long list of “dos and don’ts” that govern players’ behavior both on and off the field. Those players who will not conform to the rules are fined or removed from play entirely. By the way, not standing during the national anthem is still on the NFL’s list of “don’ts.”
The Ties that Bind
Concerning the flag and the national anthem, both carry the values that are acted out on the field of athletics: universal fairness and equality of opportunity, justice and the belief that through personal and collective sacrifice, we can achieve a more perfect (note, not “perfected”) union, one that offers the opportunity to all comers. America is a multi-ethnic society, and for us, these creeds are the ties that bind us together as a nation. This is a good thing. Nations that lose their common attraction, their national glue, come apart, and often violently.
Symbols of Oppression? No.
In contrast to the common meanings of the flag, the national anthem, and our athletes, groups like the NAACP, which authored and pushed Lift Every Voice and Sing as the ‘Black national anthem,’ claim that the flag and anthem should be seen and heard as symbols of an oppression legal system (especially the police) which attacks black Americans. If were true, if the flag stood for the oppression of any Americans, we should all kneel and cut down every flagpole from sea to shining sea, then burn their odious rags in one giant heap.
But it is not true. I live not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where, in 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, the point of origin for Black Lives Matter. As documented by the Obama Justice Department, “hands up, don’t shoot!” never happened. Michael Brown was shot because he tried to take Officer Wilson’s gun, not because he was black. BLM is founded on a lie, and America’s legal system, especially the police, is not focused on the destruction of anyone. There are violent forces loose in black communities, but they are not grounded in an oppressive legal system or racist law enforcement.
An Example From Anti-Semitism
Unfortunately, in the hands of bad actors, facts play no part in the meaning infused into an image. This was certainly the case in Europe during the 1930s. Throughout that decade, waves of anti-Semitism swelled and spread across the continent, with particular intensity in nations like Germany. Over and over again, the German government, media, and political parties posted images of the Star of David with the slogan “The Jews are what’s wrong with us (in German, Die Juden sind unser unglück, literally translated, “The Jews are our misfortune”),” transforming a symbol of religious faith and ethnic pride into an object of hatred and disgust. The rebranding campaign of the Star of David was so effective that it galvanized otherwise Christian nations into pliable, murderous mobs.
Pandora’s Box of Horrible Outcomes
As was true of most people in Europe during the 1930s, today’s football players are playing, or perhaps better put, being played, in a dangerous game, both for them and our nation. To reassign meaning to the flag, the national anthem or even to them, the players, opens a pandora’s box of horrible outcomes that neither Roger Goodell nor any NFL player can foresee.
More Than They Can Bear
The image of the flag, the national anthem and the athlete have, almost from the beginning of our country, carried the values of freedom, fairness and achievement, values that are wholly incompatible with the notion of unfairness, racism and oppression. These symbols, the flag, the anthem and the athlete will carry whatever values and meaning are assigned to them, but they cannot carry more than one simultaneously. For any symbol, any nation, multiple and contradictory values are simply more than they can bear.
Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.