The first enlisted black Marine to both be selected for the Naval Academy Preparatory School and graduate the Naval Academy, Montel Williams served 22 years in both the Navy and the Marines before going on to start the Emmy-award winning Montel Williams Show, which ran for 17 seasons. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Let’s be clear—I choose to stand for the national anthem. It’s my choice and I’m free to make it. But as someone who served 22 years in the military, I’m concerned about the backlash against athletes—professional, collegiate or high school—who kneel for the anthem to protest inequality in the criminal justice system. The threats and cruelty directed against many of these athletes should scare every freedom-loving American. So too should those who propose to coerce or force these athletes to stand. In this country, may I remind you, we allow individuals to define patriotism for themselves. Unless we want scripted patriotism—North Korea, anyone?
I’ll be the first to say that I think sitting slouching for the anthem, as Colin Kaepernick did, was disrespectful to the lives lost in the battle recounted by the anthem. (Many of the soldiers, by the way, were black.) I found the socks Kaepernick wore depicting police officers as pigs to be childish and counterproductive. But I reminded myself that professional athletes don’t usually have publicists and consultants to navigate the minefield of high-profile activism. And now that Kaepernick is taking a knee out of respect for the anthem, he has my enthusiastic support. If I had the chance, I’d remind him it’s also critical to recognize the OVERWHELMING majority of police officers who serve with honor and distinction. The goal here, as I see it, is to hold the bad apples accountable (consistently) and have our communities fairly policed.
Those outraged by Kaepernick’s form of protest should ask themselves: Should my sense of patriotism really be affected by an NFL quarterback I’ve never met? If it is, I suspect your patriotism runs a mile wide and an inch deep.
Separate from Kaepernick, people should take a look at how this “movement” is playing out at other levels in sports. At Garfield High School in Seattle, the football team, by unanimous vote, decided to take a knee during the anthem for the rest of the season. The Garfield team, keep in mind, is a diverse group of young men—white, black and Hispanic. And yet their quiet protest has caused a tremendous uproar. When I hear people lashing out against these students, flying in the face of everything I served 22 years in the military to protect, it saddens me. And it worries me. Young people making a respectful statement about an issue they care about should be encouraged. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that their protest is disrespectful.
These athletes are honoring the flag. When I watch some of my friends in the conservative media act as if these athletes are perpetrating treason, I roll my eyes. When I hear Sean Hannity weave conspiracy theories about this issue, I am reminded just how much damage the conservative media has already done to its audience. To suggest Colin Kaepernick should look for another country to live in, just because he doesn’t conform to Hannity’s bought-and-paid-for sense of patriotism, is as insane as it is un-American. To speculate that somehow Islam has anything to do with this trend is disgusting. It is a shameless play for ratings. It is an attempt to capture an audience of people who are—unfortunately—easily misled by their “media heroes”.
At the end of the day, each of us need to walk a mile in these athletes’ cleats. They’re raising very real issues. There is indeed a serious problem with policing in communities of color. Why then is Kaepernick’s protest, and Garfield High School’s, provoking so much vitriol? The reaction, as I see it, indicates many are pretending race issues don’t exist. It demonstrates that some of us are long overdue for an examination of our unconscious bias. I suspect many of the critics of these athletes are simply reacting to black men daring to challenge the status quo.
Protest that asks big questions, and gets us working toward solutions, is quintessentially American. It’s exactly what I volunteered to protect. My sense of patriotism overflows when I see those kids at Garfield. If yours feels threatened, ask yourself: How strong is it really?