The NFL preseason starts Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio, where the Chicago Bears will face the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL Hall of Fame Game. Unfortunately the most anticipated moment won’t be the kickoff to the new season. Instead, fans will wonder if the teams are going to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, or if anyone is going to take a knee in protest on the sidelines as it plays.
President Donald Trump probably can’t wait. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will continue to unravel threads of collusion and conspiracy. Trump will still be facing criticism for undermining NATO and British Prime Minister Theresa May, and enduring ongoing ridicule for his lapdog performance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. And, if Trump has half a brain, he’ll be worried that those in the American heartland who elected him is about to get an economic sucker punch when harvest comes in because of his trade war with China.
He’ll need something to rally his base, and just in time, here comes the NFL season. NFL owners and players have issued a joint statement saying they are working together on finding a solution outside of litigation.
Trump and the conservative media are doing a good job of controlling the narrative about the NFL players taking a knee during the anthem. They say the players are disrespecting the American flag, the national anthem and our country. Players say they are using their First Amendment right to protest police brutality and racial injustice - but that isn’t the dominant narrative. It should be.
I find it wonderfully ironic that Trump and the all-white team owners in the NFL will ultimately play a role in helping make Colin Kaepernick a civil rights icon. They and anyone who sides with them will ultimately find themselves uncomfortably on the wrong side of history as future generations judge their conduct. Scoot over George Wallace - make some room on the pages of those history books.
But there may be a solution.
At a recent Democratic Party event in Des Moines, Iowa, we in the crowd stood and watched as veterans marched in with the American flag. Then, together, we held our hands over our hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Like most Americans, I get emotional when reciting the pledge, even though I have done it thousands of times before. But at the end, something happened that gave me chills. It was almost like I had never really listened to the actual words in the pledge before. During the last sentence, scattered voices through the ballroom were raised, and I heard, seemingly for the first time, “with liberty and justice for all!”
Those words - “for all” - echoed through the room, and my head.
I instantly recognized that by raising voices at the end of the pledge, by amplifying those words, it was both a protest, and an affirmation. As a protest, those raising their voices were saying there isn’t yet liberty and justice for all. As an affirmation, they were saying that we pledge that there should be. That’s the goal of America, one of our founding principles.
The pledge had new meaning for me. I actually heard and felt the words, as if for the first time. I will never hear the pledge the same way again. I will never say it the same way again, and neither likely will you once you hear it this way.
After some digging, I found that this new “tradition” was started by Cate Guthrie Scanes, a Democrat who lives in Urbandale, Iowa. She told me she started raising her voice at the end of the pledge recently, and that others joined, and that she started saying the last sentence louder because she believes words matter. She wants people to start thinking about the real meaning of the pledge, and for people to actually help make the pledge a reality, when there really isn’t liberty and justice for all.
She has gay and African-American family members and friends, and knows that what the pledge demands isn’t a reality for them and many others. She wants everyone join her in raising their voices when reciting its last line.
Anyone who believes in America, of whatever party, should believe in a country where there is liberty and justice for all. Anyone who truly believes in America yet recognizes we don’t have liberty and justice for all yet should raise their voices.
It’s the patriotic thing to do. Maybe all of America will join Cate and the rest of us by reciting the pledge in this manner. Players should take the field and honor the anthem. And after it plays, stand in place and recite the pledge as cameras roll, not daring to cut away. It’s only 31 words long. Maybe 14 or 15 seconds.
And when the stadium crowd joins in and raises their voices, they too will affirm that America should be a nation of liberty and justice for all.
Affirm the pledge, but say we aren’t there yet by how you say it.
Which, of course, is what the players and most of rest of us want.
If Trump criticizes how we recite the Pledge of Allegiance? It will be interesting to see how that works for him. Not well, I suspect.
While we are dreaming, and if he is still willing to play, someone needs to put the ball in the hands of Colin Kaepernick again. It’s the right thing to do, not only because of his talent, but also for his brave stance in support of the First Amendment, and of the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. He’s a true American - and no one’s lapdog.
Robert Leonard is an anthropologist who hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa.