My wife Debbie and I are going to the Packer game tonight. My usual level of excitement over being in Lambeau with 78,000 of my closest friends just isn’t there this time. And it’s because of the National Anthem flap.
I believe this is a manufactured controversy that gives the national media something to talk about. It should have been over and done with a year ago, but it’s not, and we cannot change the path this thing has taken. Like many of you, I’ve grown tired of the same conversation wandering in circles around the desert of American culture. As is frequently the case in modern political conversation, we have two sides completely talking past each other, because they’re in the same museum looking at the same sculpture and discussing two vastly different meanings of the piece.
Therein lies the trouble. We can’t even agree on the subject at hand, let alone come together to resolve the corresponding differences. So we have two disparate voices each casting a monologue into the sound waves and wondering why the other one won’t listen. This has been the tenor of our political blathering for over 30 years. Want proof? I’ll give you a topic - talk amongst yourselves: abortion; immigration; health care. This discord has been beating our eardrums for decades, only now it’s coming to Lambeau.
And I’m already tired of it.
Please understand that sports in general is my drug, and football in particular is my opiate. It’s an addiction, though not an idolatry. Many are responding with boycotts and burning of jerseys and season tickets. I can’t do that, not without a miracle-working 12-step program. Besides, I just cracked into the top 3000 on the Packer season ticket waiting list after 24 years; another 24 and I’m in!
I believe this tempest will eventually fade and I can get back to my escape, my leisure time of jumping in the air with every touchdown and grouching about the officials on every call. We’ll get there. Right now, football isn’t about football and sports isn’t about sports. I don’t like it. I think most Americans don’t like it. This was our oasis, our Ark to withstand the rising tides of anger and self-righteous bigotry. In the stadium, we’re all part of the same game, and it’s still a game. Even the Bears are just the other team; they’re not the Philistines coming to ravage our land and enslave our children. In the stadium, we are fans sporting our team’s colors and reveling in the thrill of victory and the agony of losing our starting tackles. In the stadium, we take on our not-so-secret identity and live vicariously through the phenomenal skills and efforts of professional athletes. Until the game is over. Then we go back to the world.
But within the confines of that stadium, we are Americans. We live in the United States of America, but our disunity seems to be at an all-time high. And that spirit of separation and division fosters a divergence of attitudes and worldviews that produces sports talk shows talking about everything but sports. But neither viewpoint is actually talking about the same thing.
I have never been black. I’ve never been pulled over just because my skin color doesn’t blend in with the neighborhood. I’ve never seen my son thrown into jail for the same offense as the white kid from across town who got probation and a suspended sentence. None of my friends or brothers have ever been shot by the police, whether justified or not. My neighborhood has no bullet holes.
I can’t say I know or understand what a life lived under those circumstances is like. Nor can I predict how my inherent fear or anger would be stoked by the constant barrage of media missiles that are designed to enflame even more conflict and distrust. Who would I turn to? Politicians?
That chemistry that I have never mixed occasionally boils up and over, as it should and it must. Whether I like it, agree with it, or understand it or not, this is the reality for too many of my brother and sister Americans. They have chosen to bring their protest into the stadium. They absolutely have that right as Americans, just as the owner or the fans have the right to respond (whether they choose to do so is up to each one, which is the consummate definition of freedom). The players who sit or kneel or stay in the locker room are free to do so. From their viewpoint, it’s about equality. To them, it’s not about disrespect.
But it is.
Having announced a lot of sporting events over the years, I know how the National Anthem is introduced: “Ladies and gentlemen, out of respect for America, please stand for our National Anthem.” It’s been a part of our American sports culture for a couple generations now. We are Americans. The flag is ours. The Anthem is ours. It’s not the symbol of our government or our law enforcement. It’s us. A people united by the longest sustained commitment to individual freedom in the history of mankind. The first player that caught the camera’s eye last year separating himself from the Anthem’s honor – he wasn’t just protesting the police. He specifically and verbally directed his anger at America itself. The current players who emulate his protest are sending the same message, intentionally or not.
We are Americans. We do not have a perfect track record on freedom and equality. We went to war with ourselves to extend the beauty and majesty of freedom to those whose only crime was skin color. We went to war all over the world to export the exhilarating power of liberty in the face of oppression, certainly because it was in the best interests of Americans but greater still the best interests of humanity. We still have to maintain constant vigilance against the forces of sinful and selfish human nature that attempt to diminish or deny the rights and freedoms that belong to all Americans. Fortunately we have the constitutional framework and shared values as Americans to correct those mistakes. Because freedom is in the hands of humans, it’s still a work in progress. For the last 241 years, however, when it comes to the overall defending and advancing the freedom of every person and elevating the lives and opportunities of those who share this corner of God’s Kingdom, we’ve done a helluva good job!
So when a member of the team sits or kneels or stays back in the tunnel during the Anthem, it smacks down the commitment and sacrifice of those who wore our country’s uniform to make the American Idea a reality. It’s profoundly disrespectful. It’s not about equality.
But it is.
As long as those players think and believe and feel that the stadium is the right place at the right time to make their statement, for whatever motive they may have, then they have the right to do so. They are Americans.
And I have the right to voice my disagreement. I have the right to turn off the game, to stop buying the jerseys, to not go to Lamb… Well, let’s not get carried away. But I can find other things to do, to watch, to listen to. I can get out and play a sport myself. Or I can get back to reading a good book.
I have the solutions to what ails our cities and divides our country. It’s all there in the Word of God. It involves faith and marriage and commitment and love. But since God is no longer allowed to address our governmental institutions or our legal system, we’ll have to find other ways to decrease crime and violence and to build families and communities. Those ways won’t be nearly as effective, but this is the system we’ve chosen by our electoral decisions. And it would be nice if our politicians and entertainers stuck to their business instead of pouring gasoline on the fire. But they also are Americans, so they too have the right and the freedom to speak. They also have the right to remain silent, which I wish they’d use a little more often.
Tonight we’ll get to the stadium and find our seats. When it’s time to honor America, I will stand and place my hand over my heart and sing along with our National Anthem. That’s how I have united myself with 78,000 other Americans for the last 24 years now. I won’t tell them what to think or believe or feel, and I only ask the same courtesy in return.
Then I’ll sit down and watch the game. Until we score a touchdown. Or the ref misses a call.