Athletes standing up for everyone

Recently, on the Eagan and Braude show on WGBH radio, I listened to an interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novack, producers of the PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War,” and I thought about the anti-war protests of the 1960s and how they correlate with the anti-racism demonstrations among athletes, now being excoriated by a President who, during Vietnam, got five deferments so he didn’t have to risk his life for his country.

Those of us who opposed the war were not anti-flag or anti-anthem or anti-America or anti-military or anti-ANYTHING except anti-war. Certainly there were exceptions, even some hard-core Communists, certainly anarchists who loved nothing better than to sow disruption. But most of us just wanted the war to end before more people got killed in a war the government knew couldn’t be won.

The same thing, in a way, is true of the athletes who are taking knees or linking arms or raising clenched fists now. They are not anti-ANYTHING except what they believe to be systemic racism resulting in arrests, imprisonment and shooting of people of color simply because they are people of color. Sure, that’s simplistic, but no more so than the belief among sports fans that the athletes protesting are anti-American. Thinking simplistically is a lot easier than actually looking at complexity.

I didn’t go to Vietnam. I ducked out by joining the Navy, not because I was, in 1963, knowledgeable enough to be anti-war. That came later. The Navy offered me a place to learn a skill and, not incidentally, to avoid having my keister shot off. I knew there was a war “over there” and that it involved shooting at, and being shot at, by people our troops couldn’t see most of the time. As Phil Ochs wrote in “Draft Dodger Rag,” “If you ever get a war without blood and gore, I’ll be the first to go.” Get me in line behind Cheney and Trump or, better, in front of them.

But this simis about athletes taking a knee during the national anthem is over the top, fanned by a President who beat up on John McCain because he was shot down over Vietnam and captured. He endured five years of torture and didn’t rat anybody out and came back to continue to serve his country in Congress. An heroic guy, a standup guy.

The Boston Globe’s conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote recently that the anthem has no place at sporting events. It’s not really patriotism, he argued. And it’s hypocritical of fans to denounce players because “as a rule, the national anthem before games has no impact at all. Countless fans ignore it or use it as a bathroom break … The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ deserves better. A compelled show of patriotism no more belongs at a ballpark than it does at a restaurant.”

And suggestions that athletes should protest “on their own time” is specious. Their idea is to bring injustice into the public forum because, otherwise, who’s going to pay attention?

Renee Graham, also in the Globe, quoted the 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Martin Luther King, Jr., that became the book “Why We Can’t Wait.” King wrote about racial inequality, “We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with.”

That is precisely what American athletes are doing: Bringing racial injustice out into the open and there is nothing more open than a televised professional football game.

Saying it is disrespect for the flag is simply not true. As Graham wrote, “This (athlete-driven) protest is no more about the flag than 1960s lunch counter sit-ins were about the food.”

To do nothing is to accept what is. To do nothing is to say that racial injustice is OK, because it only has an impact upon people who aren’t us. You know: Them.

By taking a knee on the field before a football game, athletes are forcing America to look at what is and to stop accepting it. “Liberty and justice for all” means for ALL. Yes, that was written when “all” meant only white people, not those black people stolen from their homes and brought here in chains.

But they’re free now, and they are part of the “all.”

What the athletes are doing before football games is standing up for everyone, standing up for equality. What’s more patriotic than that?