We live in a country where only about half of the eligible voters bother to vote. People actively strategize ways to avoid jury duty. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans have ever served in the military. And the president admitted during his campaign that it is smart to find ways to avoid paying taxes.
And yet here we are fretting about football and the flag. Football does not increase voter turnout. It fills no jury boxes. It can cause brain damage. It includes scantily clad cheerleaders and lots of beer. It’s fun. But it is a diversion and a distraction that has nothing to do with patriotism.
The flap about the national anthem is also a distraction. Singing the anthem is a symbolic gesture. But a song is no substitute for active engagement and critical thinking.
Singing the anthem is a symbolic gesture. But a song is no substitute for active engagement and critical thinking.
Standing for the anthem is not going to get people to be more civic-minded. It certainly won’t change racism and sexism in our culture. The song is a battle hymn, not a celebration of democratic values.
There is nothing in the anthem – or in football – that encourages us to spread equality, love our neighbors, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, or respect women. Nor does football or the national anthem teach us anything about the Constitution.
And we are desperately in need of constitutional education. A recent survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center concludes that 37 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. And only 26 percent of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government.
It is the First Amendment, by the way, that guarantees our right to protest. And the courts have ruled that the First and Fourteenth Amendments give us the right not to salute the flag. In 1943, the Supreme Court held that “patriotic ceremonies” should be “voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine.” To think that patriotic displays should be compulsory is “to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
So here is a proposal: Instead of singing the anthem before games, let’s begin our sporting events with a lesson in the law that appeals to free minds. We could recite the First Amendment or the Preamble to the Constitution. Nothing could be more American than this. This is a nation of laws, after all. Our liberty is grounded in the Constitution.
Of course, thinking is more difficult than singing – and less fun. We want to holler at the high points of the anthem. We want beer and brain-scrambling hits. No one goes to a football game for a lecture.
It would be better to use our Sunday afternoons discussing justice, liberty, and equality.
So maybe we need something more sexy and aggressive. How about having players recite the fiery words of the American icons of social protest? From the Boston Tea Party to Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent social protest is as American as apple pie.
We could have players recite inspiring quotes from Thoreau’s famous essay on “Civil Disobedience:” “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Or: “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.”
Or players could quote from John Adams' description of the Boston Tea Party. In 1773, Adams wrote, “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this effort of the patriots. The people should never rise, without doing something to be remembered— something notable and striking.”
In previous generations, protests were much more dramatic than taking a knee. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. African Americans sat-in at segregated lunch counters. And the sons of liberty destroyed British property.
Social protest is inconvenient. It forces us to think. As Martin Luther King said, “it creates tension in the mind.” Thinking is not much fun. It is much harder than singing. But it is thinking that spreads the blessings of liberty.
Some have said they will stop watching football now. That’s great. It would be better to use our Sunday afternoons discussing justice, liberty, and equality. These things are more important than football. But these values whither and die when we remain distracted by songs and games.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala