In a town hall meeting televised by CNN on Wednesday, President Obama was asked by a serviceman about NFL players who have been staging protests during the national anthem. Obama elaborated on comments he made about Colin Kaepernick earlier this month, saying that “what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion.”
The town hall, moderated by the network’s Jake Tapper, took place at Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia, and the president was asked a variety of questions about his handling of military issues. At one point, a man in Army fatigues stood up and asked this question (via CNN):
“Lately, some players in the NFL have been choosing to take a knee during the national anthem, a time which I believe should be reserved to respect our service members. As commander in chief, how do you feel about those NFL players choosing this respected time to voice their opinions?”
“As I’ve said before, I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” Obama responded. “And I think that, for me, for my family, for those who work in the White House, we recognize what it means to us but also what it means to the men and women who are fighting on our behalf.
“But I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion.”
Starting in August, Kaepernick began sitting or kneeling during renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during pre-game ceremonies. The 49ers quarterback explained that he was protesting racial injustice in this country, particularly the killing of black men by police officers.
Kaepernick has repeatedly pointed out that he does not mean any disrespect to the flag itself or to military members, but his protests have garnered widespread criticism. At the same time, many support what he is doing, with some fellow NFL players and other athletes also staging anthem protests, while sales of his San Francisco jersey have soared, despite the fact that he has not been starting for his team.
At the town hall, Obama noted that “the test of our fidelity to our Constitution, to freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.” He added, “We fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with. But that’s what freedom means in this country.
“And so my hope would be that, as this debate surfaces, we’re always reminding ourselves that in a democracy like ours, there are going to be a lot of folks who do stuff that we just don’t agree with,” Obama continued, “but as long as they’re doing it within the law, then we can voice our opinion objecting to it, but it’s also their right.”
On Sept. 5, Obama was asked about Kaepernick while attending the G-20 summit in China, and after noting that he hadn’t been “thinking about football” during his trip, the president said that the quarterback was “exercising his constitutional right to make a statement.” He added that there was “a long history of sports figures doing so.”
Obama said at that time that kneeling during the anthem was “a tough thing” for military members “to get past” before considering what Kaeperick’s “deeper concerns” were. “But I don’t doubt his sincerity,” Obama said. “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about.”
On Tuesday, Obama told the man and the rest of the audience at the town hall, “I want [anthem protesters] to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
Obama concluded his answer with this: “I do hope that anybody who’s trying to express any political view of any sort understands that they do so under the blanket of the protection of our men and women in uniform, and that that appreciation of that sacrifice is never lost.” Here is video of his comments.