Ken ReedAcross the United States, from the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to Major League Baseball (MLB), sports fans have looked on as athletes have chosen to stand, kneel or raise a fist during the playing of the American national anthem.

Both the kneelers and standers have been attacked on social media in recent days.

Some people called for those who kneeled to immediately be released from their teams. Others told the kneelers to leave the country. National Football League legend Mike Ditka was in the latter group.

“If you can’t respect our national anthem, get the hell out of the country,” said Ditka.

Hey Mike, what about respecting the freedom of speech rights of fellow citizens? How about showing a little civility toward people who have opinions different than yours? Perhaps you’d prefer North Korea, where the people don’t have the freedom to kneel and silently protest during the national anthem?

On the other side of the debate, some people attacked the athletes who chose to stand during the anthem, calling them racists. Racist for standing for the national anthem?

Those comments are as ridiculous as Ditka’s.

People who wholeheartedly support racial justice, who are for police reform and the end of police brutality, who donate hours in their communities working to better the lives of the less fortunate, can also feel strongly about standing for the national anthem out of respect for military members in their families or vets in general.

The abusive language going back and forth between those supporting the kneelers and those supporting the standers is sad to witness. All this vitriol has shown that the United States, as a whole, has now officially become as divided and dysfunctional as Congress.

Here’s my overarching fear: I’m afraid we’re devolving into a country that only supports free speech for those we agree with. That’s a movement we need to turn around.

Instead of spreading hate toward people we disagree with, we should be celebrating that we live in a country where we are all free to share our thoughts in the marketplace of ideas and to make decisions like whether to stand for the national anthem.

The American flag is a symbol of freedom, and whether an athlete, fan – or anyone else in this country – chooses to stand or kneel during the anthem, he/she is exercising one of the freedoms that U.S. military men and women have fought for decades to preserve.

Americans need to get to the point where we can debate issues in a respectful, civil manner. All of us, across the political spectrum, need to grow up and start acting like we’re mature enough to responsibly handle the freedoms we’ve been blessed with, most notably the freedom of speech.

Marie Tillman, the widow of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who gave up his football career to become an Army Ranger and serve in Afghanistan (where he was killed by friendly fire), might have put it best: “The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart – no matter those views – is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views.”


Nate Boyer, another military veteran, advised Colin Kaepernick about the best way to peacefully protest during the anthem. He tweeted: “I will continue to stand with pride when the Anthem is played. That doesn’t mean I’m ‘against’ or ‘don’t support’ the REASON others kneel. We can spend the rest of our lives debating whether sitting, kneeling, standing on your head is offensive or we can focus on fixing the WHY.”

Ah yes, the why. Instead of spending so much time and energy on who’s doing what during the anthem, or who’s a true patriot and who isn’t, how about Americans all focus on living up to the ideals represented in the flag: freedom and justice for all.

Yes, freedom and justice for all: That’s the essence of what Kaepernick said when asked four years ago why he started the kneeling protests.

“Our country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now. … I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” said Kaepernick. “I have family, I have friends that have gone away and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening.

Let’s stop the childish bickering and name calling. The why is certainly a hell of a lot more important than what people choose to do during the playing of the national anthem.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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