Paul Prather

The NFL owners’ rule against kneeling during national anthem is unpatriotic

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. AP

I haven’t decided for sure, but I’m thinking about boycotting the NFL this season.

That’s a big statement for me. Sports-wise I pretty much live from one football season to the next. I go into mourning each February after the Super Bowl, and don’t feel fully alive again until August when the pre-season gears up.

But the NFL’s owners have imposed a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem or else remain in their locker rooms while the song is played.

In case you’ve been on a long-term mission trip to the Arctic Circle, a comparative handful of pro football players have been taking a knee in protest when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played before games.

They’ve said repeatedly their kneeling isn’t meant as disrespect to the anthem, the flag, the police or the military. It’s a way of calling attention to what they regard as disproportionate police violence against black people and systemic racism in general.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have exploited this protest — which has zero to do with their offices —to rile up their political base.

Earlier, Trump suggested players who kneel should be fired and lately implied they ought to be deported. Pence attended one NFL game last year just so he could make a show of walking out when players knelt.

A lot of fans are outraged at the players. Some have quit attending games or tuning in on TV.

The owners, then, find themselves caught between their players on one side and, on the other side, White House pressure and surly fans.

That I understand. Their teams are businesses. Players are their employees.

If I owned a car dealership, I probably would get sideways if my sales people started waving inflammatory political banners in the parking lot and repelling the mayor and my customers.

But the NFL isn’t a car dealership. It’s big-time, televised entertainment. It’s the national sport. Players are celebrities and fashion mavens and multi-millionaires. The playing field is their performance stage.

And owners receive all manner of taxpayer-subsidized inducements to locate their teams in their respective cities.

The owners’ decision didn’t focus on the relative merits, or lack thereof, of the players’ beliefs about discrimination. It didn’t focus on players’ right to free speech. It was only about cynical politics and guarding the league’s bottom line.

To be honest, I don’t agree with the players’ method of protesting. When celebrities of any type push any political agenda during their regular performances, I cringe.

I didn’t like it when the Dixie Chicks some years ago railed from the concert stage against President George W. Bush.

I once attended a Charlie Daniels concert. Between songs, apropos of nothing, Daniels launched into a screed against liberals.

I didn’t like that. I wanted to shout, “I don’t give a rabid rat’s patootie what your politics are! Just play ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’! That’s what I paid to hear!”

I don’t like it when movie stars hijack the Oscar awards to opine on the #MeToo movement or whatever their cause du jour happens to be.

What I do support is NFL players’, Dixie Chicks’, Charlie Daniels’, Meryl Streep’s, my and everybody else’s American right to speak their minds, without coercion from the president of the United States or, in most cases, from employers.

I equally support your right to protest for or against the players. I support your right to protest McDonald’s not putting enough pickles on its quarter-pounders, if that’s something that sticks in your craw, literally or figuratively.

It’s a free flipping country. That’s the point here.

In this nation, no matter what you believe, you’re guaranteed the right by the U.S. Constitution and multiple Supreme Court rulings to be annoying about it.

As an American, you’re promised freedom of thought, freedom of worship, freedom of speech and freedom to peacefully protest. The courts have ruled you have the right to not salute the flag and not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. You have the right to burn the flag, if you feel so moved.

And you have a constitutional right to kneel during the national anthem.

(You have a right to keep your Packers novelty cheesehead hat on, talk to your date and send selfies during the anthem, for that matter.)

From the beginning, we Americans have spoken freely. That’s part of what it means to be an American.

We’ve protested whatever we wanted to protest — beginning with taxes on tea and whisky — no matter how legitimate or cockeyed the cause has been. We are by our nature and tradition contrarians.

To tell NFL players they must hide their beliefs from the public eye so no one else will be offended is unpatriotic and un-American.

That’s why I might vote with my feet this season — against team owners and their new rule. Because I’m a patriot.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at