Two days ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that players could continue to kneel or sit during the National Anthem without facing any penalties. The next morning, President Trump predictably took to Twitter to decry the decision: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”
As I reflected on this ongoing controversy, I found myself thinking about my dad, who passed away a little over a year ago, and what he would likely say about it all.
Lt.Col. (USMC) William C. Holmberg was a bootstraps-kind-of-guy and one who loved, fought for (Navy Cross honoree; veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam ) and found a hundred-and-one ways to serve this country.
Over his 88 years he developed and nurtured an acute sense of justice and fairness. Much of that was born from empathy. As someone raised on the wrong side of the tracks and holding the short-end of the stick, Dad understood the pain, fear, hopelessness and anger that often gnaws at those whose color, economic status, upbringing, etc. can push them towards the margins.
Back before it was cool, he ruffled feathers advocating for total equality and respect for the black soldiers under his command and later throughout the entire military.
Forced to retire after a heart attack in Vietnam, Dad’s next “tour of duty” was with the Selective Service. The feather ruffling continued as he fought for the rights and honor of conscientious objectors, including perhaps the most famous and important incident of an athlete taking a principled stand against what he believed was injustice in America. (One can only imagine the Twitter-equivalents that would have gushed forth if Trump had been president when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the military.)
Connecting the dots between kids being raised in blighted inner-city neighborhoods and systemic poverty and crime, he started a program to place them in a more regulated and rural environment for two weeks in the summer. There, at a semi-retired military base, they lived in the barracks, experienced military style discipline and physical training from actual drill instructors (significantly dialed down and fun-infused, of course), went to school, played games, and engaged in basic-life-skills exercises. For most, it was their very first step onto the path to the the true American dream.
Finally, literally up to the day his old heart gave out, Dad did what he could to fight for the family farm, for the environment, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy….and the little guy.
Well, I heard his voice almost perfectly channeled in an interview with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who played football briefly with the Seattle Seahawks. Nate had spoken out last year when Colin Kaepernick got the whole NFL protest train rolling. Then they met, talked and found a very interesting and compelling place of understanding and compromise. Instead of sitting during the national anthem, Kaepernick began taking the knee.
And now, as more and more NFL players are also kneeling , Nate has spoken out again, this time in a letter to “Every Single American.”
“So please, no more lines in the sand, not at home, not among our people. No more choosing sides, no more “for or against.” I believe our Veterans will be called upon to lead the way in healing the world and solving its problems; right now our country needs that more than I can remember. So I’ll be here, standing in the radical middle, doing what I can to continue fighting for those that can’t fight for themselves. Let’s get this thing fixed together, you and me. I love you all with all my heart.”
De Oppresso Liber” (To free the oppressed)
It’s great to hear your voice again, Dad, cheering from the sidelines.
(As for my thoughts: like it or not, you introduce an element of politics into any event where The Star-Spangled Banner is played. And that anthem is there to commemorate our national creed, which has at its very heart the freedom of speech and political expression.
That speech and expression becomes most meaningful and important to the vitality of our country when it is born out of thoughtful engagement with the transcendent values of truth, justice and mercy. I know that not everybody who sits or kneels is doing it out of this type of engagement with the issues. But not everyone who stands is doing it from that place either. Personally, I think it’s great for America that there is this type of debate and reflection going on right now.
Lastly, as Americans we should applaud anyone who takes the playing of our anthem seriously rather than just going through the motions and/or following the herd. (I would that we took our other civic responsibilities—particularly voting—more seriously and thoughtfully as well.) Standing, singing along, covering one’s heart or lifting up our eyes and hands to the great hill (and, FYI, it’s not the Capitol version) from which our redemption comes is great. But so is kneeling as a sign of humility, compassion, contrition, reverence and prayer. Again, while not everyone will have hearts and minds that truly reflect their respective postures, I will choose to look at them, smile to myself and think, “Well, it’s at least a beginning.”
I would recommend that “every single American” consider doing the same.
Nate Boyer’s interesting, six-minute radio interview can be heard here.