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AMEND CORNER: Respect, offense and protest

It’s been a week since the big hoo-ha over a protest staged by a bunch of professional football players during the playing of the national anthem before the week’s NFL games.

The collision between the protests of the players and the super-patriotism of football fans was rather nasty, especially after our president decided to use the occasion to draw our attention away from his own shortcomings. The fuss covered up for his failure to provide adequate assistance to Puerto Rico (whose residents are, by law, American citizens) in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which all but flattened the island.

In response, a lot of football fans got all riled up about what they see as a lack of patriotism and an insult to our men and women in uniform and those who have died in our nation’s interest. That’s to be expected, of course, and in a way, I understand it. I, for example, get the same feeling when I see someone displaying a Confederate flag, the symbol of an attempt to destroy the United States because they wanted to keep owning people and treating them like animals. That doesn’t seem very patriotic to me, and nothing I’ve ever read about that war — and I’ve read a ton of stuff — has ever convinced me otherwise.

Fortunately, there are people with cooler heads out there who see the protest in a different light. One of them was a column written by a woman, Kelly McHugh-Stewart, whose father, a colonel in the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber in 2010. McHugh-Stewart said she loves the “Star Spangled Banner,” and since her father’s death, she can’t listen to it without crying. Still, she says, “I’m not offended by what is happening in the NFL right now. At least these players are ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem for a cause.”

Six months after her father’s death, she writes, the Kansas City Chiefs brought her family to a game to honor her father’s sacrifice and recognize his family. As a country band sang the anthem, they sang parts of the song wrong, prompting a woman behind her to yell at the band to get off the field because they were drunk.

What really offended Ms. McHugh-Stewart, though, was that when the last line, “the home of the brave,” was sung, then the entire crowd screamed “the home of the Chiefs.”

“They had replaced ‘brave’ — a word that, to me, represented my father, a man who spent 24 years in the military and gave his life for the country — with a mascot. My blood boiled,” she said. Later she learned that crowds watching the Chiefs and even some attending college games in Kansas always sing it that way. She goes on to say that she has worked in college and professional sports for five years, and has seen people disrespecting the flag all the time, through inattention, drinking or simple excitement.

The player’s protest, though was different, McHugh-Stewart says. “Not once during these peaceful protests have I gotten the sense that the players’ intention is to disrespect the military. Not once did I feel that they were taking my father’s ultimate sacrifice for granted. Rather, they were exercising the exact freedoms my father gave his life for.” She adds that protests are supposed to make people uncomfortable and make them talk about an issue.

In closing her essay, McHugh-Stewart says, “I will always respect my country’s flag and national anthem. To me they are the symbols of freedom, of my dad’s sacrifice. But my father did not die for symbols. He died for people. He died for the rights of all Americans, regardless of their race or religion. Right now, some Americans still face inequality. So they protest and create change. And I applaud them.”

I fully agree with McHugh-Stewart’s complaint and her acceptance of the players’ protest as valid. While I’m not in the habit of watching people to see what they are doing while the anthem is played, over the years I have seen many instances of misuse of the flag and the anthem, particularly in large crowds at big events. Even in small crowds, though, I suspect many people are just going through the motions. We hear the national anthem played or sung so often that it becomes routine, something we do before a game, and our mind is not focused on the anthem, the flag or what it stands for.

As for the protests last week, I thought the real disrespect for the anthem came from the stands. Those who booed and yelled obscenities at the kneeling players during the anthem were actually the disrespectful ones. Screaming insults while the band plays or even as the flag leaves the field can in no way be defended as respect for the flag or America. Not only is it disrespectful to the flag, it’s disrespectful of the players’ right of free expression, which the flag symbolizes.

I read another columnist who, as he sipped a beer with his dinner noticed the picture of the flag on his can of Budweiser, which he said was a breach of flag etiquette. He’s right, because the federal guidelines on flag etiquette direct that the flag should never be used to advertise a product. Since the flag had no doubt been carefully placed on the can knowing that it might attract beer drinkers to purchase it, it would seem that Anheuser-Busch is guilty of disrespecting the flag.

Do you think patriotic beer drinkers will stop drinking Bud to punish Anheuser-Busch, or go to company headquarters and yell obscenities at the company?

Not a chance.

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