By Michael d’Oliveira
We’re no longer content with merely having a different opinion than our neighbor. “Let’s agree to disagree” is no longer an option for us. “Let bygones be bygones,” that’s gone.
Those days are over. Maybe they were never really here. But they’re definitely gone now, and have been for some time.
Now, whenever we’re offended, like Shakespeare’s Shylock, we want our “pound of flesh.”
And today, many of us got it with the NFL’s decision to fine teams if players kneel during the National Anthem before games.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the new policy and said the National Anthem “Is a very important moment to all of us” and that players shouldn’t disrespect the flag or the National Anthem.
These protests have never been about the flag. They’ve been about using a national stage (is there any bigger than the NFL on Sundays?) to speak up against issues regarding the black community and local police departments. To say this is about the flag is a gross mischaracterization.
To say it’s about the First Amendment is also a mischaracterization . . . sort of.
A lot of people will try and frame this as a First Amendment issue. But it really isn’t. The First Amendment is about preventing the government from punishing citizens for expressing themselves. In some ways, government abuse of the First Amendment would be preferable to what is exemplified in this NFL issue. The handful of government officials conducting a hypothetical abuse of power could be removed with a new election and replaced with people who respect the Constitution.
This is about something much deeper and more troubling – the letter of the First Amendment lives on, but the spirit is diminishing.
That First Amendment spirit can’t be imposed by the government. It can’t even really be taught in a traditional sense. Each individual has to cultivate it within himself or herself. And it goes way beyond tolerance. It requires a deep love and understanding of one of the cornerstones of what this country truly stands for – the right to offend and hold unpopular opinions.
Of course, these players still have the right to express themselves off the field. They still have their rights. To a certain extent, we all have to act a certain way at work. At the end of the day, these NFL players are employees and they have to follow the work rules of their employer.
That brings us back to that First Amendment spirit.
Instead of being content with simply criticizing these players for kneeling or boycotting games, many people demanded they pay some kind of price. Of course, they were within their own First Amendment rights to say the players should be punished. But why do some of us demand that pound of flesh? Must everyone conform to our version of the proper way to display our patriotism?
Is this the kind of country we want to live in? Is this who we want to be as a people? Thin-skinned, overzealous, demanding conformity, and satiated by superficial acts of patriotism?