“You have to stand proudly for the National Anthem or you shouldn’t be playing.
You shouldn’t be there.
Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
–President Donald Trump

When I was in high school, the Vietnam War was raging and many of us were pissed off. So many lives were lost in a fight over nothing, and many of the Americans who died had been sent there against their will. We’d been lied to by our government again and again, beginning with the Domino Theory that losing Vietnam to communism would mean the end of democracy throughout southeast Asia.

In the end, we got our asses kicked in the jungle, Vietnam became one unified country under communist rule — which we now have normalized relations with and even American veterans visit easily as tourists — and none of its neighbors followed. You never hear any current public official deriding Vietnam or its leadership. If Cuba were in that part of the globe, there would be no dissension towards open relations with that nation, either.

I wasn’t of draft age yet, but that didn’t stop me from protesting the war whenever possible. I went with my parents to join 200,000 other Americans at the huge rallies on the National Mall in 1970 and 1971, as well as some in our hometown. We marched, sang, made signs, the whole deal.

At school, in Social Studies classes and elsewhere, there were lots of discussions about the war and the protests. I knew several of the guys on the basketball team, so I went to all the home (and some away) games to root them on. Before each game, the National Anthem was played and most of the people in the stands stood up.

I did not.

It was not in disrespect to the players on the court or the soldiers in the field. It was my way of showing that I was sickened by the leadership of our country continuing to send young men off to die in a war that served no purpose (like most wars). A few friends joined me in remaining seated — and being berated by some adults who couldn’t understand how we could dare not jump to attention, place our hands over our hearts, and sing along. To the credit of the principal, teachers, and staff, none of those verbal attacks on us ever came from anyone who worked for the school district. They may not have liked it, but — as educated people and educators — they understood that we were expressing our First Amendment right to free speech. Besides, there was no law or rule that said we had to stand. This was just a few years after the Supreme Court had ruled that you can’t force students to recite the Pledge Of Allegiance in class.

That was irrelevant to the Nixon supporters and American Legion types who made up the Love It Or Leave It brigade. Remember, this was pre-Watergate, when most people trusted the president (which is why we’d fallen for deliberate falsehoods from LBJ, McNamara, Kissinger, Rusk, and others). To them, patriotism only meant one thing — blindly supporting the decisions made by the Commander-In-Chief, no exceptions. To us, patriotism meant loving America but recognizing that it was not perfect; in fact, it could do a lot better in many areas.

I thought about all of this in light of the NFL owners’ cowardly decision this week to ban players from kneeling during the anthem or risk a fine being levied on the team, which could then be enforced against the individuals who dared protest on the sidelines of a football field. It was a unilateral decision made without consulting the players’ union, and I won’t be surprised when it ends up in a courtroom. But what it’s really about is the owners’ concerns about their bottom line. They are scapegoating the players who have knelt over the last two seasons, blaming them for the drop in the NFL’s TV ratings. The truth is, because of the concussion crisis and other factors, pro football viewership was already falling off before 2016, when Colin Kaepernick drew national attention for refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” saying he wouldn’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Naturally, the modern-day Love It Or Leave It crew — led by the usual gang of right-wing blowhards — immediately twisted the meaning of the protests, claiming Kaepernick and other players who followed his lead were anti-American and hated the men and women of the US military. In their mind, dissing the troops is the worst offense you can commit in our country. Never mind that once those soldiers come home from our current multiple war fronts with PTSD and parts of their bodies blown off, it’s their own government that fails them through a VA health system that is still dysfunctional, ill-equipped, and underfunded. That’s not important as long as you don’t sit down while the anthem plays!

Worse were those words from the Ego-In-Chief asserting that if you won’t stand for that song, “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” It’s one thing for a loudmouth to shout that from the stands, or for pretty much everyone at Fox News to say it repeatedly on the air, but for the man who swore to uphold the Constitution to ignore the First Amendment and even hint that you are not welcome in America just because you’ve expressed your opinion, well, I’m right back in that high school gymnasium with a serious sense of deja vu. That’s what makes our country different from, oh, let’s say, Vietnam. Or China. Or Saudi Arabia.

While the owners’ decision is driven by money, the reactionary response is certainly drive by skin color, led by the haircut in the White House so beloved by white supremacists. Ask yourself whether we’d be having these discussions if the kneeling players were rednecks upset they couldn’t listen to Toby Keith. Or watch Fox News in the locker room. Or didn’t want to to cross the border into Mexico to play an exhibition game. Or they were NRA members protesting a new gun control law.

Ironically, there’s a good chance NFL ratings will go up over the next couple of seasons, but it won’t be because the players can’t kneel in protest. It will be a direct result of legalized sports betting causing more gamblers to tune in to watch games they’ve risked money on.

By the way, the NFL owners were against that, too.