Point of No Return — Like them or not, protests are protected speech

My love affair with our national anthem began at a very young age.

Perched in seats where noses went to bleed and binoculars were as necessary as hot dogs and Cracker Jacks, my father and I would rise up with the rest of those in attendance at Memorial Stadium and join in honoring our flag and nation before our beloved Baltimore Orioles would start their games. My dad, an Army veteran who served during the Vietnam War, would explain how the poem the song was based on was penned right around the corner from the stadium, making the entire experience that much more exciting for me.

When the fans all shouted “O’s” in unison during the song, I thought my head might explode. Coolest. Song. Ever.

We went to a lot of sporting events back then. Orioles, Bullets (now the NBA’s Wizards), Capitals, Maryland basketball and football, high school games, you name it. If there was a game being played, and the tickets were reasonable or free, we were often there. And we stood with pride for that national anthem every single time.

If I began to shuffle my feet or ask my father a question during the anthem, he would quickly “shush” me, and then explain to me how serious this tradition was as Americans. If I stood with him while wearing my hat, he would take it off my head and hand it to me.

“Show respect,” he would say. And, I did.

I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps shortly after high school, and there I met some of the bravest, most-honorable men I’ve ever encountered. They weren’t household names, nor will they be considered famous American patriots by the history books, but they left an awe-inspiring impression on me that still makes me proud of them today. I had the privilege of serving with these men in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and that gave me an even greater appreciation for our national anthem, and the sacrifices put forth by so many under the shadow of our great flag. So... I stand.

I stand whenever I hear that song, without hesitation. I stand with my feet at a 45-degree angle, put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I no longer do it as a son trying to please his father, or because social norms tell me it is the appropriate thing to do — I stand because I have the great privilege to take a few minutes to honor those who came before me, and all who have followed in their footsteps.

So, yeah, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began gaining notoriety for his decision to not stand with his teammates during the national anthem because of perceived social injustices, it hacked me off a great deal.

“Well, let me get this straight,” I thought in my head. “You get paid a ton of money to play a game. Your grandkids will be able to attend any college they want if you don’t blow it. And you think so little of this country that you can’t even muster up enough respect and gratitude to stand and acknowledge it for a few minutes? Pound sand, man. Get lost with that garbage.”

I listened to Kaepernick’s interviews on the subject, and discovered that he had a lot to say. He spoke on systematic injustices against people of color, and, in particular, cases of police brutality against unarmed black men. He bemoaned a system that he felt didn’t hold officers accountable for their actions, and said that he just couldn’t stand for a nation that did not stand for him.

Well, those are pretty heady concerns, and ones that need to be discussed.

But, please, not during the anthem. As Kaepernick continued his weekly “sit-ins” and more players joined his cause, I got more and more annoyed. I heard the players swear up and down that their actions were in no way a slight to the military, but they have to understand what would happen, right?

If you had a friend or loved one come home in a box draped in that flag, what would you think? If you were watching veteran suicides climb exponentially by the week, what would you think? If you watched the VA crumble into an understaffed, underfunded disaster while nobody did anything about it, what would you think? You’d think this was disrespectful, both to veterans and current military personnel, intentions be damned.

But I never once felt like it wasn’t their right — we’re not North Korea. If someone feels the need to take a knee to make a statement, take that knee. If businesses decide they need to stop sponsorship contracts with players who do, or fans want to stop handing over their money, well, that’s their right, as well. We have free speech. And we also have consequences.

The protests blew up to somewhere between 150 and 250 players last weekend, depending on the source and how the figures were tabulated. Three teams didn’t even come on to the field for the anthem. Some team owners locked arms with their players on the sidelines, and Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones — who has been consistently stating that his players would always stand for the anthem — knelt with his players on the field in solidarity before the anthem began on Monday Night Football.

We all know why there was a spike last weekend. President Trump, as President Trump often does, spoke out on the players protesting the anthem, and resorted to vulgarity, name-calling and threats. With nearly 1,700 alpha-males playing in the NFL, you’d have to expect some responses. When you sprinkle a racially-charged subject matter into the equation, well... chaos.

I hate this concept of protesting during our national anthem to send messages, but I hate the concept of people not being allowed to much, much more. That anthem and flag stand for freedom, if it’s convenient or comfortable or not. We can’t mandate forced reverence, or we turn into something far worse.