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View from the USA: Nation on its knees

In America, sports stars taking a knee have been accused of disrespecting the flag, but the reverse is true — it’s helping patriotism to evolve and stay relevant

View from the USA: Nation on its knees
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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It’s nearly Super Bowl month: the grand finale of the NFL calendar, which means it’s very likely I’ll be neck deep in a vat of Budweiser with nachos crumbs and barbecue chicken wing sauce dripping down my chin. Say what you will about Americans’ sports, but they know how to snack.

January was going to be great. I was ready to tailgate — the finest of American sporting traditions, which happens in the stadium car park before every game — along with hundreds more vehicles; trunks open, music blaring, beer everywhere, like a car boot sale for drunks. Next, I’d watch my local college football team — 53,000 grown men and women screaming for university-age boys to beat the crap out of each other. Because who doesn’t like watching children get concussions while they’re trying to learn?

But then something happened. This year, the NFL wasn’t really about the game; it was about patriotism. It started with pro quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in solidarity with the activist movement Black Lives Matter, which protests against violence and racism against black people. Kaepernick — a young black man — decided that instead of standing for the national anthem (played at the start of every professional sporting event in America) he would kneel. 

Firstly, big deal. Secondly, the Department of Defense actually pays professional sporting teams to host patriotic displays such as these. That’s right. According to a 2015 Senate oversight report, between 2012 and 2015, an average of $2.6m a year was spent on ‘paid for patriotism’ at sporting events — military marching bands, ‘heroes’ paraded in front of the crowd, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops… The entire flag-waving, Star-Spangled banner thing, in other words. 

But here’s what happened to Kaepernick: he was booed, received death threats, lost his job, and people everywhere — friends, neighbours, smart people I actually like and have boring middle-aged conversations with about insulation and wood flooring — completely lost their shit. Just for taking a knee. 

It made me think of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington DC — partly because he was another American who protested by taking a knee, but mainly because it’s created to look unfinished. In it, we see the figure of Dr King emerging from a block of uncarved white marble, as if still in the midst of being hewn from the stone. His expression is sombre, unsatisfied. The monument appears unfinished for a reason: Dr King’s work is not yet done.

The work of patriotism is not yet done either — nor will it ever be. Because if the American flag stands for anything, it stands for the freedom to challenge, to change, to stand up for those who don’t have a voice, to make this ‘imperfect union’ — as it’s described in the constitution — better, fairer and more worthy of the people it protects. That’s true patriotism. Anything else is like your national identity on cocaine: every one shut up and listen to how great I am. It’s sticking your hands over your ears and humming so you can’t hear the truth. 

Then something amazing happened. Trump weighed in. He called Kaepernick a ‘son of a bitch’ and challenged NFL bosses to fire anyone who followed suit. The next day, more than 200 players were kneeling. Entire teams locked arms in solidarity. 

But it may not last. At the time of writing, team owners were starting to crumble and the league was considering plans to rewrite the player’s code of conduct to forbid them from kneeling during the national anthem. 

Many Americans were outraged — taking a knee, they say, is unpatriotic. It disrespects the flag. But which flag? The flag of 1940, when black people were forced to sit on the back of the bus? The flag of 1910, when women weren’t allowed to vote? The values the flag stands for aren’t set in stone. Patriotism isn’t blind devotion; it’s what helps those values evolve. It takes guts. It takes action. Because the people who need the most help always begin on their knees. The only thing that’s unpatriotic is not helping them to stand.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)