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The NFL is Teaching Kids the Wrong Lesson About Patriotism

NFL owners have decided to fine players kneeling in protest, ushering in a kind of forced patriotism that is antithetical to our national values.

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N.F.L. team owners, under the “leadership” of Roger Goodell, have instituted a star-spangled policy demanding that players stand on the field when the national anthem is played or stay in the locker room. Teams whose players take a knee in protest of racial injustice under the new policy will be fined. Moreover, players can be disciplined in whatever way their team’s ownership deems appropriate. This policy has fairly obvious flaws, but the most notable is this: It teaches kids a terrible lesson about patriotism.

After the initial meeting on the issue, the N.F.L. Players Association and league executives released statements that seemed to indicate something resembling a desire to have a real conversation. Granted, Colin Kaepernick remained out of a job, but it seemed like the final rule would eventually be a compromise. That’s not how it turned out. The final rule is, in essence, a way to censor a legitimate protest. In point of fact, it is censorship endorsed by the White House. It is a demand for patriotism or else.

Rather than inspiring patriotism, which it certainly has done at some points during its history, the NFL is demanding it. What do kid’s learn when they tune into the game? That patriotism is an obligation. That’s a North Korean lesson, not an American one. However one sees the protests — acts of conscience, displays of anti-American sentiment — it’s difficult to argue that support of the troops offered at pain of penalty is not true support.

In effect, the new rule is likely to eliminate both protest and genuine patriotic display. The anthem went from having different but powerful meaning to different people to, in the context of an NFL game, meaning almost nothing at all.

But, apparently, that’s not the kind of patriotism that N.F.L. owners want to promote. Instead, blind compliance to traditional displays of decorum won out over allowing players to address the very real issue of racially motivated police action in the United States. And that gives kids terrible lesson in what it means to be patriotic.

Patriotism should be marked by a devotion to one’s country, but not a blind, unquestioning devotion. National devotion without inquiry is what leads to jingoistic support of the kind of despotic regimes America has traditionally fought in its most righteous wars.

Wanting our country to do better in terms of justice, for all people, shows a deep and abiding respect for our national values. Using one’s high place in the public eye to call for change and equality is an act of love for this country. Kneeling quietly to express that “land of the free” still rings hollow for an entire minority class is an act of national brotherhood. Because a country isn’t simply a label scrawled across a map. It is made up of living breathing people, all of whom, our forefathers noted, were created equal and had the unalienable rights to pursue happiness with life and liberty.

Unless, apparently, you happen to be a player in the NFL, in which case you best just shut up about liberty. And if that’s the case for a mighty and powerful player on the gridiron, then what hope for liberty should our children feel they have?

We should not want our children to blindly salute the flag, stand, and remove their hats every time the National Anthem is played, simply because that’s what’s expected. And we certainly shouldn’t scare them into doing so by making an example of their sports heroes. That’s completely antithetical to the ideals of freedom that our country was founded on.

We should instead, encourage our kids to build a personal patriotic desire that is rooted in their urge to lift up their fellow countrymen. Isn’t that what we supposedly fight for when we go to war? Isn’t that the service our veterans are so proud of?

Our country was built on the fact that good Americans can speak up and fight if they feel our core national freedoms are being harmed. The N.F.L. decision to silence dissent is unamerican and a terrible example for kids.