The NFL Protests: Touchdown or Personal Foul?
Written by Rhett Burns on February 8, 2018
The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl Sunday night to conclude a controversial NFL season. This year, pregame inaction eclipsed the action on the field, as many players refused to stand for the national anthem, choosing instead to take a knee in protest. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the trend in protest of alleged police brutality against black citizens. The protest grew to include multiple NFL franchises and has taken on the character of the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy on multiple occasions with calls for teams to suspend or release kneeling players. He even indirectly referenced the protest in his State of the Union address. Trump’s opposition to the national anthem protest may come from a place of deep patriotic conviction, but it is also politically helpful for him because it plays to his base in middle America. Former fans and sports bars across the country boycotted the NFL this season, including last Sunday’s Super Bowl, because they deemed the protest disrespectful of our nation, law enforcement, and military. Anecdotally, I ran into scores of people in South Carolina who have dropped the NFL this year. Watching the Super Bowl as they have done every year for decades was out of the question. They took the players’ protest, and the NFL’s tolerance of it, as an insult, and they swore off the league.
Now that the season is over, how should we think about the flag and national anthem protest? Is it an egregious offense against our nation and its finest service members? Is the counter-protest another example of God-and-Country patriotism taking a sharp right turn into silliness? Is it even clear who the good guys and bad guys are here? The issue pulls in several different directions, and careful observers will feel the resulting tension.
In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote that our desires are not too strong, but rather too weak. His point being we are often satisfied with lesser pleasures than the ultimate joy that God provides. Similarly, it often seems like our cultural outrages can be too petty. Our nation is murdering babies, solemnizing sodomy, stealing from our citizens, and engaging in perpetual—and unauthorized—war. But, yeah, the posture of professional football players during the national anthem is the important thing here. The Christmas wars expose the same problem, as if cashiers the country over saying “Merry Christmas” covers our national sins. Getting worked up over symbolic slights distracts conservatives from more pressing issues, and one could be forgiven for thinking this is the precise play being run on them: get them huffing and puffing on an inconsequential battlefield to keep them from engaging on the ones that matter.
Yet, I sympathize with the boycotters even though I did not find it prudent to join them. Symbols are important because they stand for something larger. To the extent that larger thing matters, the symbol matters. The American flag represents life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, self-government, the triumph of the little guy, opportunity, and apple pie. The flag symbolizes what America has been, could be, and should be. Further, it has come to have a special attachment to the military due to the many wars that have been fought during our lifetimes, but especially because of the great heroism and sacrifice of World War II’s Greatest Generation. We owe those brave men a huge debt, and honoring the flag they so bravely fought under is just a small part of honoring them.
However, this understanding of what our flag symbolizes is partly nostalgic and aspirational. But symbols cannot be grounded in sentimentality; they are necessarily accurate. That is, our flag represents what our country is, not just what we want it to be. The American flag flies over the Supreme Court, which has found constitutional rights to infanticide and (so-called) same-sex marriage. It is patched to the arms of the army uniforms that have been in Afghanistan for seventeen(!) years. It waves over the FISA court that secretly authorizes spying on American citizens, including presidential candidates. In addition to life and liberty, there is a sense in which the American flag also represents death, free sex, pornography, exploitation of opioid addiction, unjust police practices, and crony crapitalism economics.
Given such injustice, protest of a nation or flag should not be rejected out of hand as unpatriotic. Protest can be an expression of love for country, a form of discipline that calls a nation to its higher ideals, a plea for it to listen to the better angels of its nature. The current NFL protest is a mixed bag of good and bad. Some of it is virtue-signaling, cultural Marxist identity politics hellbent on destroying Western civilization. But some of it arises from legitimate injustice that Christians ought to care about. The charge of police brutality is at the heart of the protest, and that issue is a mixed bag in itself. In some cases, the officer has been at fault, while in other cases, the officers were justified in discharging their weapons. Documented cases of police brutality, and the fact that some local police departments look like the seventh infantry division ready to occupy the Gaza Strip should concern Christians and conservatives. Yet, we also want to show respect and gratitude to the police officers who serve our communities. We should want to call our nation to repentance, and protests can be used to bring awareness to that need. Granted, because of the far-left nature of the NFL protest, I do not align myself with it. But I am open to protests in principle, and as far as protests go, kneeling is a rather respectful posture. They could have turned their backs, which would have been much more disrespectful.
The point is that these things are never simple and straightforward. I hesitate to call it complex, for complexity is often a table for cowards to hide under. But there are many angles, and we would be foolish to buy either side wholesale. Our national character is not unimpeachable or immune from rightful protest. We are sinners. But our sins are not necessarily what the cultural Marxists claim they are. Our great need is for the Church, not the social justice warrior class, to be the conscience of our nation. We need her prophets to stand up and call for truth, justice, and righteousness in our land. In the widespread absence of such men, the prophets of Baal have risen up, kneeling.
But God will not be without a witness. In a plot twist art critics would mock if it came from Sherwood Pictures, God ended this controversial NFL season with Christianity on full display. The world champion Eagles featured a former Reformed Theological Seminary president as offensive coordinator, a future pastor and current divinity student at quarterback, a receiver who says making disciples is his number one priority in life, and a pro-life activist. Even the Patriots got in on the Super Bowl week evangelism as wide receiver Michael Slater shared the Gospel with the media during a press conference. From the trophy presentation podium, the Eagles head coach and star players all spoke of Jesus and giving glory and thanksgiving to God. Later, in the locker room, all of the championship-winning players, led by head coach Doug Pederson, knelt.
Not in protest, but in prayer.