I would take a knee

cowboys jones kneel.jpg

I would have taken a knee if I was in the NFL on Sunday.

I have been a Republican almost my entire life. And I would have taken a knee.

I volunteered for Republican campaigns. I worked for a Republican U.S. Senator. I worked for Republican candidates. I proudly served in George W. Bush’s Administration. And I would have taken a knee.

Until Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, as well as the laughably bad GOP attempts at repeal at replace, I considered myself a member of that party. And I would have taken a knee.

There are three reasons why:

It’s about the team.

Set aside the whole issue of race, the flag, and all of that politically-loaded shouting for a minute. If you’re an NFL player, an unpopular President spoke out against your teammates and peers; against them exercising their right of free speech, calling them a “son of a bitch” in the process.

The President is the last person who should be putting boundaries around free speech and calling for a private citizen to be fired for exercising that speech (the whole we wanted to avoid a totalitarian monarchy when establishing the Constitution being more than a little important). That an unpopular President with a known history of inflammatory racial rhetoric threw down the gauntlet guaranteed a more unified response from NFL teams and players, regardless of their other beliefs.

Imagine you’re a Seattle Seahawk. This is a team founded on doing things differently,  producing a vibrant culture that celebrates each other, most vividly on display via Peter King’s post-Super Bowl 48 observations…including the “we all we got…we all we need!” chant that says a lot of how teams unite in such environments.

Couple that culture with existing Seahawks’ dynamics, with Michael Bennett’s response to Charlottesville, and later very public incident with Las Vegas police, as well as both Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin speaking out passionately on issues related to race.  Whose back are you going to have? Your teammate with whom you train with daily as well as compete with and for in a physically and mentally violent sport…or Cheetoh Jesus, typing away with his tiny hands on Twitter?

You’re going to stand, or kneel, with your team.

Justin Britt already made a significant statement earlier this year, when he, a white player, began putting his hand on Michael Bennett’s shoulder while Britt himself stood for the national anthem. That was before the short fingered, vulgarian with atrocious hair and a record of not condemning white supremacists went on a tirade against NFL players. No wonder so many players, coaches, and owners, took action at games across the country.

I think about my own experience competing and coaching a college swim team. I would still run through brick walls for some of those with whom I trained and competed. If while I served as an assistant coach, a grandstanding, asshat of a Governor of Virginia had, say, said one of my athletes couldn’t appropriately express their political beliefs while at a team function, I wouldn’t care what the issue was or on which side I stood. I’d walk into a team meeting and ask those targeted how the team could best support them, then figure it out from there with the rest of the team.

That’s where this has evolved into something more than protests against injustice or inequality, as the Colin Kaepernicks and Michael Bennetts of the world started. It’s about the right to protest, especially against an appalling son of a bitch that presumes the moral and legal authority to say otherwise. And most definitely, it’s about having your teammates back. That’s why so many teams were fully united in their action and/or supportive of those that chose to protest, with very often the team’s owners at their sides.

It’s not about the flag or the anthem, it’s about living up to what those things stand for.

A few years ago I bet I would have found myself  on the other side of this issue. Yet, the proliferation of cell phone videos capturing the police mistreatment of people of color was my tipping point in thinking about the issue differently, even as I know and respect many people in law enforcement for their good hearts and service.

The unholy outcome of the Philando Castile case, for example, should gnaw incessantly at the heart of everyone committed to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. And yet, the more you spend time listening to people of color talk about these issues, the more each of them invariably has their own story of overt discrimination or oppression.

Perhaps listening to the experiences of Michael Bennet, Richard Sherman, et. al gave me some additional perspective. I think moving from Seattle to New Orleans changed things too.

Life in the suburbs of a predominantly white metro area, where the largest minority are prosperous communities of Asian-Americans, leaves racism being a rather abstract, intellectual topic. Going to college in Virginia changed that perspective a bit. So too did working at the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of improving education for traditionally disadvantaged students add some depth as well, especially as I far-too-often encountered the institutional, discriminating belief that poor children couldn’t learn like their wealthier, white peers.

Fast forward to New Orleans, where whatever the legal construct in which we live, the lasting impact of decade upon decade upon decade of direct and indirect racism will give you a jolting slap across the face if you dare to lift your head and cast an open-minded gaze upon it.

Want to see true poverty, driven primarily by race? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see entire neighborhoods left behind by the benign neglect of decades of pervasive white racism? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see the impact of decade after decade of a shitty education system that gave its students precious little hope to succeed, let alone improve their lives? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see society still struggling to deal with the vestiges of racist behavior (such as a black men choosing not to look white women in the eye for fear of the consequences)? Come to New Orleans.

But, wait, you say. Those NFL athletes are spoiled and rich. How dare they kneel!

Spoiled?

Richard Sherman is from Compton.

Compton!

Former Seahawk Mack Strong tells the tale of his flight from Georgia to Seattle when he joined the Seahawks out of college. He couldn’t afford proper luggage. Some of his belongings were in a trash bag. When people started laughing at it at baggage claim he sat and waited for everyone to leave before he picked it up and went on his way.

Watch the NFL draft and you’ll hear many a similar tale of hard circumstances. Pay close attention to the media coverage of any team as rookies from college join the team and you’ll hear more.

Yes, NFL players are well-paid (for their usually short careers). Yet, many of them hail from the very opposite of spoiled backgrounds. And many of those of color have additional tales of what they experienced as a black male.

One of the other tipping points on this issue for me was reading about former King County Executive Ron Sims’ experience with the issue of driving while black. Think you’re pristine, progressive Seattle? Hardly.

And if Seattle is still fucking this issue up, can you imagine what it’s like in older parts of the country where racism’s roots are more ingrained and insidious by historical patterns of societal behavior?

Wait.

You can’t.

Neither can I.

The truth is based on the demographics of my Facebook friends (the primary traffic driver to my blog), most people reading this post won’t have the faintest idea of what being black in America is like.

I don’t.

Yeah, we talk about ideas we believe in. I’m a history and political science major who spent a lot of time studying what our country stands for, especially as we have traveled the very imperfect journey from our founding to today. For God’s sake, I wrote an entire post extolling the virtues of Alexander Hamilton, long before the Hamilton music leaped into popularity.

The military historian in me also thinks very highly of our troops and our veterans. The men and women of our Armed Services have been a source of freedom, liberation, and protection to countless peoples across this globe. Despite their inevitable human imperfections and our imperfections as a country, I love them and why they serve, and in some cases, died in that service.

I love this country and what it stands for. Deeply.

And I believe we have more work to do.

It’s about listening

One of the most searing (and correct) critiques in modern society today is declaring those who can not abide dissenting or contrarian views on college campuses to be “snowflakes.” Places of higher learning should not be places where one needs a “safe space” from the reality of our world in which views and beliefs differ, sometimes mightily. Indeed, places of higher learning should shine a spotlight on those differences, allowing people to broaden their perspectives and learn more.

Here’s where I get to some bad news for some of my friends on the right who I have seen react vociferously to events related to the NFL in recent days. In leaping to condemn someone for taking an opposing view or an action different than that you would choose, in declaring you’re done with your previously chosen team and the NFL, you’re acting like…the very snowflake on a college campus you otherwise rightly condemn.

You’re better than that. We’re better than that.

Maybe we should all listen a little more. This bit about Seahawks coach Pete Carroll responding to and working with Trump supporters on the team through all this struck me:

“Directly, what I did is I hugged them,” he said.  “I talked to them, and expressed that I appreciate where they’re coming from, and what they feel with no other thought but to accept them.”

That response explains why lots of players enjoy playing for Carroll. It’s called empathy — a respectful sensitivity to another’s feelings, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. It’s a rare capacity in any leadership post, and much more elusive in an industry where manhood is often defined by the sort of faux-macho bluster often exhibited by the president.

The approach was probably important in persuading Trump supporters — or the merely fearful — to set aside their reluctance to create at least a public unanimity. Or, in old-school parlance, take one for the team.

Maybe instead of losing our ever-loving minds about a short, peaceful protest before a sporting event we could spend more time doing that: listening to people with a different point of view. Listening to the their thoughts, their experiences, and why they believe what they believe.

I have a friend who is an anarchist. Straight up, burn it all down: capitalism, government, society…you name it. Yet, we’re friends and can have serious conversations, respecting where the other person is coming from. The fact we met while both working at a health insurance company tells you the world has more grays areas than the jarring black and white world of “you agree with me or you’re evil!” social media and politics into which our society sometimes descends.

What’s the key with my anarchist friend? We listen to each other.

Did any of us out there hope for a President picking this fight with the NFL and its players now, especially with all the other domestic and foreign policy issues at hand?

Safe to say, no.

But, he did.

So, we can continue to yell and spit at each other and think ill of those with whom we disagree. Or maybe…just maybe…we could take advantage of this opportunity to listen to those who are saying we still haven’t yet reached the full maturity of the lofty, important idea that all men are created free and have equal protection under the law.

We’re human. Painfully so. This great experiment in democracy called America has been so very imperfect. We fought a horribly bloody civil war just to settle the fact we shouldn’t be enslaving other human beings. It took us another hundred years to better address the legal rights of those previously enslaved. And roughly fifty years later, we still have a lot of work to do.

That’s why we should listen. And that’s why I’d have happily taken a knee with my teammates, especially given the despicable display from our President on this important issue.

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