Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question comes from a Portland Trail Blazers fan, but isn’t specific to the team itself. That’s just where it’s hitting home for him. It’s a tough question, but a good one, about athlete protests of the kind sweeping the NFL. Let’s consider.
I’ve got a hell of a question for you that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. What are you going to do if our team kneels or does something else for the national anthem? I love this team and always will. I’ll be honest with you though I’m just an old soul who doesn’t want politics mixed with my sports. I go to escape and I just want to root for my team like always. I figure you’d have a more complete view.
Thank you for all you do. I’ll understand if you don’t feel like answering because its controversial.
Sign me Graybeard
I considered not answering this for the simple reason that I am in no way an expert on the cultural issues at stake. I will defer speaking about those; others are far closer to them. I’m using this question because you asked in the one way I might be able to respond, “What are you going to do, Dave, as an observer?” From that view—as one person among many who follows the team, is affected peripherally by the potential of protests, and is sharing from a personal point of view and not making pronouncements for all—I think I can get a purchase on your question. Maybe doing so will help us process how we might react should Trail Blazers players choose to protest.
Disclaimers firmly in mind, three things shape my view of anthem protests and observer reaction to them.
Politics is Already Here
I understand the notion of, “I don’t want politics in my sports,” but politics is already in the arena. The flag and the patriotic definitions surrounding it are political. The uniforms worn by players and security, the suits worn by team executives, the advertisements and games on the Jumbotron all carry political freight. We don’t have a choice about that. Whenever we’re together en masse, political, societal, and cultural assumptions enter the relationships between us. What we really mean by, “I don’t want politics in my sports,” is, “I don’t want the politics surrounding sporting events to change, because I’m comfortable with the way it is...so comfortable that I don’t really even think about it as political anymore. It’s just my norm.”
Whenever we’re considering change, we have to ask what’s at stake in moving and for whom. For me—and I think for most observers in our culture—our comfort level at sporting events is threatened, along with a few minutes or a couple hours of enjoyment. For some it runs deeper. The protests strike at their personal identity or their perception of country and community. Those are fair and real reactions.
As I have listened to protesters talk about this issue, I have heard them express fear not just for their identity, but for their lives...fear that outside forces may not just change their identity, but rob them of the capacity to have one.
I understand many would like to avoid having politics mix with leisure. They would like a break. I also understand that some among us would like to drive to the convenience store—or let their children do so—without fearing that they might not make it back alive.
I do not have the experience to examine the fabric of those claims, nor is that my intent. I can only say that to the extent that truth is real for someone, I absolutely affirm that it outweighs any discomfort I might feel about my leisure time being interrupted and I support the need to call for change. I don’t need to know more than that as a fan or observer. I’m not called to play judge; I’m just called to have empathy for those who participate in the sports experience along with me, including the players. That probably means allowing for protests.
The Flag Belongs to All of Us
Anyone who’s ever been in the military has a special relationship with the flag. I honor that. I thank you for your service and sacrifice, which are significant to all of us. Military members are entitled to 100% of their bond with the Stars and Stripes.
That cannot be the only bond between Americans and the flag, though, nor the filter through which all of our relationships with the flag pass. Military service cannot be self-referential. Enlisting cannot earn an all-encompassing, exclusive relationship with the flag that crowds out all others, else we become a military regime instead of a democratic republic by and for the people.
All of us—military and non-military alike—get to have a relationship with, access to, and commentary about the flag and the nation it represents. That relationship is often complex. Sometimes, when things go astray, it can even be adversarial. We’re still allowed to have it.
When players protest, they are not jumping up and blocking access to the flag or the honor people devote to it. They are having, and expressing, their own relationship with the country. Our flag and nation are big enough to allow both direct lines of access—and thus both expressions—to exist, even side-by-side, even in the same venue.
Players choosing to kneel or not does not prevent me from rising with a hand over my heart, nor does it prevent me from having my own thoughts about the country, nor does it invalidate the relationship I have with it. My choosing to stand or not should not prevent them from having their own experiences, thoughts, and relationships either.
Players Get to Be Human Beings
Within the confines of arena and court, players become our surrogate heroes. They represent us: our community, our unity, and in many ways our aspirations. For a couple hours we run, soar, and perform amazing feats along with them. This is wholly appropriate. It’s one of the reasons players make millions of dollars playing a game.
Seeing our players as superheroes, we prefer them to wear masks. As happens in all drama, we smooth away anything about them that threatens to spill over the edges of those masks. Since we identify best with things familiar to us, we also tend to smooth away anything that makes them feel different (or apart) from us. This is one of the reasons the claim, “I’m not racist...I like basketball players” doesn’t convince. For the duration of the game, race and most other characteristics become secondary. Isn’t it amazing how many people get down to floor level only to be shocked that they’re not actually as tall as NBA players? At some level you’re not noticing that Jusuf Nurkic really is seven feet tall out there. He’s just a little bigger you. Race also becomes secondary—decentralized to the experience—not because we finally regard each other as equals, but because we’re subtly erasing the characteristics that don’t fit our idealized mask. Our eyes may see skin color, but our brains are interpreting uniform colors more strongly.
Such representation has limits, though. When, “I don’t want to see you as that different from me,” becomes, “You may not be different than I,” we’ve dehumanized the people we’re beholding, turning them into just a mask. No sport or moment of leisure is worth that.
Being aware of this, as long as I’ve covered this game, I’ve tried to live by a rule: players get to be human beings first. They may not be like me. They may have foibles or act in ways I have a hard time accepting. But they get...to be...human...always. If they are hurting or afraid or angry or tired—or protesting—I will live with that even when I don’t like or appreciate it, even when it gets in the way of my enjoyment.
If I fail to see things that way, I have broken something deeper and more important than sports. If players don’t get to be human, with their own wonderful-and-awful human identities, there’s no common ground for a relationship between us in the first place. I might as well be sitting home moving chess pieces against an empty chair.
For all these reasons, Graybeard, players protesting would probably not affect my appreciation of them or the game that much. I’m not sure I would join in or kneel alongside. I don’t feel like I have access to the experiences that would make a dramatic protest meaningful. I’d feel like I was dressing up in one identity for that moment then leaving it behind when I departed the arena, which doesn’t seem right. But if any Trail Blazers opt to protest, I won’t boo or see them as any less Trail Blazers...or any less American, for that matter.
I wish there was never a need for such things. Sometimes there is. It’s not my place to decide whether or not this is one of those times. If somebody decides that, for them, it is, that’s their right as a citizen and a human being. I’ll listen, try to learn what they’re saying, and hopefully we’ll be able to move onward in a productive way together.