There are a lot of countries on this planet where the things that we witnessed on Sunday would not have occurred. The dear leader would have spoken, the subversives would have fallen into line, and that would have been that. The founders of this nation were not perfect men with perfect ideas, but among the many things they got right was the one that paved the way for displays like the ones that transpired at Lincoln Financial Field and other football stadiums before this weekend’s games. Roughly 36 hours after the president of the United States encouraged private business owners to terminate the employment of any worker who chose to exercise his First Amendment rights in the form of an act of peaceful protest during the playing of the national anthem, a handful of Eagles did just that, raising their fists toward a cloudless September sky as their teammates and bosses locked arms in solidarity.
Football fields aren’t often the places we turn to for our civics lessons, but, on some abstract level, here it was, the upshot of a 36-hour back-and-forth between a nation’s football players and its unsettlingly erratic president.
“We live in a wonderful country, and that’s what makes that flag special,” defensive end Chris Long said, “the fact that you are able to protest it.”
It is a point so obvious, so fundamental, that it is difficult to accept the lack of comprehension on the part of a man and his followers who otherwise swear by the document whose principles underpin it. What follows is fact: On Friday evening, while speaking against the backdrop of a giant American flag, the chief executive of a nation whose constitution protects its citizens’ speech from governmental interference leveraged the weight of his office to advocate financial retribution against a group of citizens as punishment for their expressing an opinion that he found distasteful. That is what President Donald J. Trump did at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., and it is what he continued to do throughout the weekend via his Twitter account (along with some missives about health-care policy and potential nuclear war). Again, that is fact, and in case his intent was in doubt, he became increasingly unequivocal as the weekend wore on. He addressed Roger Goodell directly, urging the commissioner to change the NFL’s policy on anthem etiquette. On at least two occasions, he urged NFL owners to fire or suspend any player who was spotted, in his opinion, “disrespecting our Flag and Country.”
He did not say, specifically, whose definition of “disrespect” the owners should use when deciding to strip their employees of their livelihood. Which, really, brings us back to our original point: that, more than anything else, Sunday afternoon offered us an opportunity to fully appreciate the remarkable foresight our founding fathers deployed in their codification of explicit protections against the arbitrary value judgments of individual officeholders.
It is often difficult to conceptualize life in a political system that is not fortified by our constitutional safeguards. In this instance, though, when you consider the president’s words, and the mentality they expose, it is difficult not to think about the logical end to which they’d lead under a constitution that delegates a more concentrated balance of power.
“To say as a president that everybody who protests peacefully deserves to be fired, maybe you’re leading the wrong country,” Long said, “because that’s not America. This country was built on dissent.”
The opportunity to arrive at such realizations does not come around regularly in this country, perhaps only as often as we need reminding of our inherent fallibility. Segregation, the Red Scare, internment, the Alien and Sedition Acts: Our progress is a testament to the dangers of even carefully checked majority rule. Perhaps, one day, we will look back on the current state of American criminal justice in a similar way. Sometimes, truths are self-evident only in hindsight, after the status quo has dissipated and its polluted biases have cleared from our collective consciousness to a point where we can recognize the irrationality of what once was our norms.
“Yes, police brutality is an issue, but it’s not the biggest issue,” Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “We have so many systematic things that we need to change. There’s the bond system or giving second chances to felons, or just your likelihood based on your area code or ZIP code — I mean, they have things where they can type in your address or where you’re from, and know, what’s your likelihood of success? Or, what’s your likelihood of going to jail? It shouldn’t be that way.”
Reaching the next step is always a struggle, but players like Smith — who for the first time joined safety Malcolm Jenkins in holding a fist in the air during the anthem — sound emboldened by the visibility that Trump has afforded their fight.
“This is a moment that will go down in history,” said Jenkins, who has worked tirelessly with politicians and community leaders to improve relations with police and advocate for criminal-justice reform. “It’s up to our country to say where it goes.”
Here’s a good place for the country to start: Accept the legitimacy of the protestors, and then listen to the message they are hoping to impart.
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