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“There are only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up, tell ‘em what you believe in, and make a statement. So today I thought that was that chance, and so I took it.”

– Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers

“I know for a fact that I’m no son of a bitch, and I plan on continuing forward and doing whatever I can from my position to promote the equality that’s needed in this country.” 

– DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns

The National Football League has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years: A game that continues to become more violent and real concerns about long-term brain injury. Problems of domestic violence with some players off the field. An expanding empire that seeks not only own Sundays but every day of the week. There is much about the NFL about which to be concerned and critical.

But in late September 2017, as teams gathered across the United States and two teams traveled to London, in my opinion, we saw the NFL at its best. A wave of unity and protest swept across the league. Entire teams knelt or stood arm-in-arm, and several teams remained in locker rooms during the U.S. national anthem. Players, coaches and owners, including the NFL commissioner, spoke out.

Kneeling is not an act of disrespect for the U.S. flag. It is an embodied act of lament.

All of these actions came as a response to President Donald Trump’s inappropriate comments at a rally the previous Friday in Hunstville, Alabama. Trump took aim at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as an act of protest against inequality and social injustice, calling them unpatriotic “sons of bitches” and urging team owners to fire them for “disrespecting the American flag.” He further urged fans to get up and leave the stadium if even one player kneels. His comments were followed up with a round of tweets, which as usual, only dug him deeper in the hole.

Once again, Trump managed to insult and alienate another vast segment of the population, this time taking on professional athletes in the NFL and National Basketball Association. Rather than uniting and inspiring the country during a time of division, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric only sought to further divide.

But what we saw over that weekend was an outpouring of professional athletes, coaches and owners who were impassioned and thoughtful in their responses, calling the president to account and demanding more from him and more from their country. They were professional athletes and coaches who wanted to use their platform for good and who desired to make the U.S. a better place. They were professional athletes and coaches who seemed to have a better grasp than the president of the Constitution.

ACT OF LAMENT

What happened on that day last September was not an act of disrespect for the U.S. flag or for the U.S. military men and women serving throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament.

Let’s just be clear: That day of kneeling was not an act of disrespect for the U.S. flag or for U.S. military men and women serving throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament. The psalms met the gridiron. As one player said, in the same way a flag is lowered to half-mast as an act of sorrow when a national tragedy has occurred, so kneeling is an act of remorse at the injustice and inequality that exists in U.S. society, a kind of lament for what is and also a hopeful protest for what can be.

The overwhelming response that day after that wave of kneeling was targeted at Trump. It was a clear message that the person who occupies the highest office in the U.S., who is known as a leader in the free world, could not get away with that kind of rhetoric. Those players and coaches would not be bullied and intimidated. Nor would they be divided. Their protest announced a time for unity: Enough is enough.

We can debate about whether kneeling for the national anthem is the best way to exercise the free-speech rights granted the U.S. Constitution and whether there are better ways for professional athletes to express their political and social opinions.

But these athletes were not unpatriotic sons of bitches. For the president to have resorted to such juvenile insults deserved a personal foul of the highest degree. If the president would listen to why these players, the majority of whom are men of color,  are choosing to express their convictions in this way, he would discover that they are deeply patriotic. He would discover they want what the President of the United States should also want: a more equitable, just and unified country.

Patriotism is not turning a blind eye and giving uncritical allegiance to leaders, regimes and policies, even if it violates the deepest values and ideals of one’s country. True patriotism is having the courage to speak and act out of love for one’s country, naming where it fails to live up to its ideals and calling it to something more.

By peacefully kneeling during the national anthem out of a love for the best ideals of the U.S., these players are not disrespecting the American flag, but just the opposite: They are showing the utmost respect for that flag and all that it stands for.

There are still problems with the NFL and questions about the safety of the sport. But in answer to all who might be quick to dismiss NFL players as overpaid, violent gladiators who only are interested in fame and fortune, we see in their protests demonstration of heart, intelligence and courage that is worthy of notice and commendation.

Brian Keepers is lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa. This essay first appeared on the Reformed Journal’s blog, The Twelve.

Photo by Torsten Bolten, AFpix.de – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0