On Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. Later in the night, self-described “Army brat” and respected ESPN anchor Sage Steele tweeted the following:
— Sage Steele (@sagesteele) November 14, 2016
So I guess this whole protesting debate isn’t going away then?
Steele, who was visiting Arlington National Cemetery as part of ESPN’s week-long “Salute to Our Veterans” coverage, has strong emotional ties to the United States military. Her father is Colonel Gary Steele, a veteran and West Point graduate who broke the color barrier at Army 50 years ago when he was the first black man to play for their varsity football team.
“I just think there are other ways to express yourself,” Steele said. “No matter what, you stand when the national anthem is being sung, the Pledge of Allegiance, no matter what it is. You stand up, you put your hand on your heart, you don’t talk, you take your hat off and you [show] respect, period. I have no patience for anything less, but I respect his right to do what he wants. I just don’t respect what he’s doing. If I ever saw my kid doing it, we’d have a frank conversation and I would remind them of where their great grandfather is buried and what he gave up. . . . My military ties run deep and I just think that we can come up with better ways to express our views.”
Once again, the sentiments that Steele has expressed are vastly misguided. The idea that a peaceful protest during the national anthem is a slap in the face to everyone who has ever served this country is unfair. Our republic is supported by a Constitution that guarantees us the right to peaceful protest, and the very nature of protest means that it hardly has the same effect when performed during times and in places that are “convenient” or comfortable for everyone.
The military – just like police officers, firefighters and other all public servants – have an honorable and dutiful role in our society. When they’re functioning with integrity, they represent the best of what Americans have to offer the world. But that does not mean the entire country owes it to them to stand for the national anthem whether they want to or not.
We don’t live in a country that tells us what to think. Respect for the military should not be defined by whether someone stands every time the Star Spangled Banner comes over a speaker system. Respect for the military and the people who have made that sacrifice, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, is best expressed when American citizens take advantage of the civil rights that they fight to protect; that includes the very important and historic right to peaceful protest at any time.
What Steele fails to realize is that by berating Evans for participating in peaceful, responsible protest, she’s actually undermining the sacrifices of our military rather than honoring them. We have been given no reason to believe that Evans is ungrateful for our soldiers and our veterans just because he took a knee during a symbolic gesture before a sporting event.
I respect Steele’s understandable and emotional attachment to her family and all those who have served our country. I too have a father and grandfathers that served this country honorably, as do millions of others. And it’s because of them that we are not forced by law to stand and salute when we’re told to.
To put this into perspective, here is a quote from Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion in the 1943 ruling of the landmark case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette in which it was deemed unconstitutional to force students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance:
“The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”