Like all civil peace, American contentment depends on its people believing in a certain story about how this country functions. Elementary school civics lay the groundwork: We live in a democratic republic, wherein the organs of government reflect the will of the people and the legitimacy of every act of governance can be traced back to the collective consent of so many rights-bearing persons. Individual rights are to be protected above all else because individuals matter above all else. Somewhere way downstream of all this comes football.
There’s some patriotic pageantry with all highly televised and profitable sports, but the National Football League has always seemed to approach its displays with a grim determination. Maybe it is because, for a while, at least, they were a business transaction. A 2015 joint oversight report commissioned by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain found that the Pentagon had paid the NFL nearly $7 million for salutes, color guards, anthems and more during games. The Pentagon and the NFL both say they’ve cut it out since.
So I guess it must be love, not money, driving this latest spasm of patriotic fervor. NFL team owners agreed upon a rule Wednesday (without consulting the NFL Players Association, naturally) that would give players the option of staying in the locker room if they would rather not stand during the singing of the national anthem, but would issue fines if those players chose to kneel publicly during the anthem instead.
On one level, it does seem just as cold and calculated as the old days, when the NFL was swapping salutes for cash. If you have to threaten someone into showing respect, whatever they end up showing isn’t respect but a simulation of it for someone else’s consumption. The fact that the rule has already been made public just means that everyone is aware that this is the portion of the game when the NFL forces its players to stand still while they play a song, or else. The meaning of it all washes out; the fines make it entirely situational: It’s a workplace compliance issue, a matter of the NFL making its performers sell its customers what they want to buy. The content is meaningless.
And yet this latest panic over kneeling during the anthem does seem to be more than strictly business. A wiser group of all-business chief executives would have at least considered the bargaining agreement before unilaterally moving on such a contentious matter, especially considering the attention it was bound to receive — which suggests the potential costs, in bad press and lawsuits and arbitration headaches, were all simply worth it, that there was something more important in it for them.
If not money, then what? There is the evident racial component, bolstered by the bizarre involvement of the president, which has everything to do with disciplining black people in public, a long-running American obsession. But I suspect there’s something more, something wider and stranger, at the root of all this fury over a few athletes quietly kneeling during their country’s anthem. For one, there’s the straightforward fact that kneeling isn’t a sign of disrespect, and nobody brought up in a country with the faintest hint of Christian culture actually thinks it is. As Luke Bretherton, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University, wrote last year in The Post: “New Testament stories describe people who kneel before Jesus in supplication or lament. With their kneeling, these biblical figures say: Something is desperately wrong, please hear us and use your power to help us. Their act of submission signals their faith that healing will come and their prayers will be answered.”
Kneeling during the anthem was always a kind of plea — for an America that works the way the civics textbooks say it does. But making the plea raises the fact that America doesn’t, in fact, function according to its founding story; we’re not all individuals whose rights are equally protected, whose wills are collectively represented in the organs of government, whose interests are advanced according to our common say in how we’re governed. Some are protected more than others, and some better than others, and some at the expense of others, and it isn’t clear that our representative bodies are interested in doing anything about it. All Colin Kaepernick and others ever did was ask.
But that’s the one thing the American story is just too weak to survive.