San Francisco 49ers Eric Reid, left, and Colin Kaepernick kneel — rather than stand — during the playing of the national anthem before their game Monday. Many people dislike such protests, saying they have no place at a sporting event. (Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press)

One of the big questions during the first week of the National Football League (NFL) season was not which team played the best but which players would stand — or sit or kneel — during the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick, a reserve quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, caused a huge controversy during the preseason by not standing during the familiar “O say can you see” song.

Kaepernick has explained that his sitting or kneeling is a protest.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country [the United States] that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said.

Other athletes — including NFL players, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and even some high school football players — have staged similar protests.

Many people are upset with Kaepernick and the other protesters. They say the protests have no place at a sporting event. They also say the protests show a lack of respect for our country, the men and women in our armed forces, and the police.

This is not an easy issue. I can understand why some fans, especially ones with friends and relatives in the military, are angry at Kaepernick.

But it is important to remember that Kaepernick and the other athletes are exercising their right of free speech. That right is so important that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .” (Abridging, in this instance, means limiting.)

I think the Founding Fathers put that in the Constitution so people — athletes or whoever — can speak up when they think something is wrong with the United States.

The United States is a great country. But countries, like people, make mistakes. The United States has made plenty during its long history. For example, the United States allowed slavery until just after the Civil War (1861-1865). In addition, the government took land from Native Americans. Women were not guaranteed the right to vote for about 130 years. And the United States has fought several wars it probably shouldn’t have.

Sometimes we need protesters to point out what is wrong with the country and where we should improve. It is important to note that some military veterans have said they support Kaepernick. Those vets say they fought precisely to protect the freedom of Kaepernick and others to speak out.

The NFL has not penalized Kaepernick for the protest. The league stated that players “are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” Maybe the NFL senses that the United States is a strong country that can take some differences of opinion.

I hope the protests will get people talking and listening to one another about the difficult problems of race and fairness, and, more important, working together to find solutions.

Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 21 sports books for kids, including three football books: “Touchdown Trouble,” “Quarterback Season” and “Double Reverse.”