As the anthem debates return, a reminder that it was a veteran who first suggested kneeling

Debate over kneeling during the national anthem have once again hit the public discourse as sports has resumed—in a modified fashion—and players are being filmed taking a knee for racial justice.

Last night, Major League Baseball shared a video of some San Francisco Giants players, as well as team manager Gabe Kapler, kneeling during the anthem...

...which was met with celebration by some and derision by others, including the president.


The most common complaint about kneeling during the national anthem is that it shows disrespect for the U.S., the flag, or the military. But the folks making those complaints seem to miss—still, somehow—that kneeling became part of the movement for racial justice in the first place because a veteran suggested it.

Let's go over how we got here:

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem before a 49ers game on August 26, 2016 because he saw the racial disparities in our legal and justice systems and felt that our country—the one our flag and anthem represent—was not living up to its ideals of "liberty and justice for all." That simple action created an uproar among people who took it as disrespect for the flag and for the veterans who sacrificed for our freedoms. Controversy ensued.

Another football player and veteran—former Seattle Seahawk and Green Beret, Nate Boyer—saw this go down. He wrote to Kaepernick, sharing support for the basis of his protest but explaining why sitting during the anthem created a visceral, negative response in some people, including himself.

Kaepernick invited Boyer to meet with him. They spoke for 90 minutes, sharing their different perspectives. Kap said he wanted to make his statement without being disrespectful to the military, so Boyer suggested that instead of sitting, Kap could kneel during the anthem.

Kaepernick wanted to stage his peaceful demonstration while still showing respect for the military, so he talked to a veteran about how to do that. And that veteran suggested he take a knee instead of sitting because taking a knee is a sign of respect and reverence. Always.

People kneel to pray. People kneel to propose marriage. People who live in monarchies kneel before royalty. Taking a knee in those instances is a sign of respect and reverence.

Soldiers kneel in solidarity with the wounded. Football players themselves kneel when a player is injured and carried off the field.Taking a knee says, "I see you and acknowledge your suffering." It is always a sign of respect and reverence. Always.

Can you think of a situation in which consciously getting down on one knee is not a sign of respect? I can't. It's not like Kap flipped a middle finger to the flag or dropped his pants and mooned it. It's not like he even turned his back on it. He simply didn't stand, and when he realized that was being misinterpreted, he knelt — at the suggestion of a veteran. And others have followed suit.

Taking a knee during the anthem is not a statement against what the flag stands for. Quite the contrary, in fact. It says America is wounded by racism and injured by injustice. It says to those in our nation who are still not experiencing true liberty and justice, "I see you and acknowledge your suffering." And it says all of that while also saying, "I respect the sacrifices made by those who fight to protect our freedoms"— because, once again, taking a knee is a sign of respect.

Boyer explained what happened to ESPN in 2017:

Nate Boyer on suggesting Colin Kaepernick kneel instead of sit during anthem | First Take | ESPN www.youtube.com

The flag and anthem are supposed to belong to all of us, as symbols of our ideals of "liberty and justice for all." If some of our citizens are still not experiencing true liberty and real justice, then our flag and our anthem are not representing the nation as we think they are. That is why these protests are happening. And now far more people have taken up the cause than did four years ago, so clearly something about it has worked.

We need to acknowledge that there's more than one way to fight for your country and stop questioning the patriotism of people who are trying to make America a more just place for all, whether by pointing out injustices or engaging in peaceful protests. There's nothing more patriotic than trying to make your country everything it can be.

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Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

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