Oct. 2, 2016. Colin Kaepernick, left, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The NFL was always there. I remember Sunday mornings, my dad and his friends sitting in the living room, the game on and laughter everywhere, me sprawled upon the carpet barefoot and cheering. Thanksgiving? The parade was fun and the kitchen busy, but the real action, where dirty jokes and bad beer made everybody thankful, was in the family room around a shrine of pigskin and nearly drunk uncles. Football was a reason to gather, and I loved it for that.

When I became a father I continued the pattern, insisting that the “f” in family time was for football, even if I was alone by halftime.

I started boycotting the NFL a few seasons ago. It was a decision based on a number of things, including the way the league seems to emotionally blackmail cities into funding stadiums that taxpayers can’t afford and the disregard for serious head injuries to the athletes.

However, my primary issue was the constant worship of players who spend their off-season committing felonies and acts of abuse, only to return each year with wrists freshly slapped and new deals waiting on the table. How could I, in good conscience, teach my kids right from wrong, only to have them spend their Sundays kneeling at an altar of hypocrisy?

The irony, of course, is that the act of kneeling is now why so many other fans are boycotting the NFL. But rather than being upset about the negative role models on the field, many fans are outraged by a peaceful act of protest. They feel that America is being disrespected, when in fact it is America’s finest quality being showcased: Freedom.

Until recently, the National Football League has treated the peaceful protest made by Colin Kaepernick, his kneeling during the pre-game playing of the national anthem rather than standing, as he told NFL.com, for “a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” as a brand embarrassment.

Kaepernick’s silent use of America’s rights and freedoms to protest the actual lack of them has kept him on the unemployed sidelines while the league misjudged the intelligence and sensibilities of the ticket-buying public and our collective call for justice.

However, it is important to note that football was in serious trouble long before Kaepernick’s taking of a non-stand upon the soiled sod of the NFL pitch.

Consider Anytown, USA. It is Friday night, and there are lights. The horizon is alive with their glow, a patch of daylight against a cool, starless sky. From it, a wave of voices breaks upon the hum of soft suburban silence, the ebb and flow of cheered excitement beneath a band beating double-time.

It is high school football, and despite the grass-stained energy of teens sweating hope upon the gridiron, the sport is in a free fall of public opinion. The stands are not as full as they used to be, but they will be even less so next season and perhaps fewer still the one after that.

The reason for football’s steady decline, specifically at the youth level, is well-documented in medical studies, including this one reported by The Washington Post, which confirm the lasting, negative effects of head injuries and the alarming regularity with which they occur. The health risk far outweighs the goal line reward, and many parents are choosing to err on the side of caution.

Yet, opinion remains that football is a fun game. As far as frenzies go, football is an easy one to embrace. The highest level a golden gladiator pit with each new star player richer and bigger than the last.

In a culture hungry for heroes, football players have been appointed the real-life equivalent of so many caped crusaders. They are plastered across bedroom walls, and selling everything in everything commercials, all with their jerseys draped upon children’s backs. They are role models to the masses, and while there are many who may be deserving of the title, too often NFL players present a glaring reminder of society’s woes.

It is the constant flow of NFL players in and out of courtrooms that now litter highlight reels where sportsmanship used to be, a regular rogues’ gallery of murderers, rapists, drug use, and the repeated abuse of women, children and animals. Even worse is the league’s apparent willingness to look beyond the crime, further down the field to where the earth bends just below the goalpost, and the financial glory growing there.

These are not the news clips I want my children to see.

The NFL’s repeated acceptance of criminal behavior is no different than a celebration of it, and when coupled with the medical studies that are keeping countless kids away from football, it is all too much.

Heroes have flaws, and that is what makes them relatable, human. But heroes learn from flaws. That is the difference here.

What message is being sent to our children when too many of our anointed heroes face faux consequence for the worst of behaviors, but are publicly ostracized when exemplifying integrity and merit?

The kids deserve better than that.

Which brings us back to the blacklisting of Kaepernick and the kneel heard around the world, perhaps the most powerful thing any player has ever done on the field. His action is one of the few moral highlights in a league, and a country, that sorely needs them. Yet, even as other players continue to honor his example, too many have failed to understand it.

That all changed when Donald Trump added his heated take into the mix:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

In reaction to Trump’s statement(s), whole teams have rallied to support Kaepernick by taking their own knee during the national anthem, or, in some cases, not entering the field until the song has finished playing. While the symbolism is striking, the sentiment is even more so, for it is plausible that many of those joining in the protest are not doing so because they agree with Kaepernick’s stance, but rather his American right to to express it. And that is something I want my kids to witness. That is the NFL heroism I want them to see.

It is enough to inspire hope in a country that desperately needs some, and remind us that heroes do exist, not because of the logo on their jersey, but the heart beneath it. If society continues to encourage children to view athletes as role models then we should be sure they are worthy of the responsibility, using their power for doing the right thing rather than just the game they play.

Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever return to embracing football like I once did. There is no scenario in which my kids will ever play, and even though I strongly support the protesting, it doesn’t offset the official lack of character shown by those running the league.

Instead, my kids and I will use examples from all sides to talk about right and wrong, and the implications thereof.

When it comes to quality family time, there are plenty of ways to spend a Sunday.

Whit Honea is the author of “The Parents’ Phrase Book” and co-founder of Dads4Change.org. He’s on Twitter @whithonea and Facebook.

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