The Humanist Dilemma: Why Should Athletes Have to Stand if Students Don’t?

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What Are We Standing For: I’m wondering why NFL players have to stand for the national anthem if students don’t have to stand for the pledge of allegiance. It seems inconsistent, and such a huge, unnecessary fuss.

—Can’t They Just Play the Game?


Dear Game,

Although teasing out all the differences between the two situations you cite isn’t under the purview of this column, I’ll start the ball rolling with a few thoughts (from someone who is neither a sports fan nor conversant with the regulations that govern players).

Our nation’s laws currently don’t require anyone to perform the pledge or stand for the anthem. But whatever is or isn’t required of NFL players and other professional athletes is determined by their contracts and governing bodies—which ideally should be consistent with the laws of our nation, but probably aren’t, since these are privately owned, commercial enterprises. There’s quite a lot of controversy over what players can and can’t—or should or shouldn’t–be mandated to do, including whether their free expression rights as citizens can be overridden by the rules of their employers.

Regardless, breaking with the tradition of standing for the national anthem (whether it was enforceable or not), and instead taking a knee, was an extremely public way for players to express a sentiment. Their protest of police violence against black men became a playing field for everyone to pile on with their own opinions and agendas.

In my opinion, no one should have to stand for any flag, swear any oath, or otherwise comply with mass displays of purported patriotism or loyalty–particularly if they want to express the idea that our nation has not been fulfilling its own pledge to treat all of its people equally.

Are there other ways to get that point across? Yes. Are there any as simple yet powerful and attention-getting as this one? Possibly not. It’s unfortunate that so many misinterpret (in many cases, willfully) the intention of the gesture. Not standing is not disrespectful to our nation—on the contrary, it’s showing high expectations for upholding our country’s explicit ideals. That–in contrast to robotically rising on cue—demonstrates true respect, honor, and commitment to what our country genuinely “stands” for.