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Politics, sports, and the flag

The NFL's national anthem demonstrations have proved, once again, that politics and sports are often inseparable.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler saw the Olympic Games in Berlin as an opportunity to promote his ideals of racial supremacy. Rather than boycott the Games, the United States chose to send their best athletes regardless of skin tone and religious beliefs. As a result, African-American sprinter Jessie Owens won gold and triumphed over the warped philosophy of Nazism.

On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play second base. In a front-office move that was meant to signify the social progressiveness of the franchise, Robinson broke the color line and heralded the end of segregation in America's favorite pastime.

In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event, turned on the medal ceremony podium to face their flags during the American national anthem. Each athlete defiantly raised a black-gloved fist and showed the world what self- determination for people of color looks like.

In the summer of 1971, the game of ping pong was used to open up diplomatic relations between the US and the People's Republic of China. The so called "ping pong diplomacy" was so successful that it resulted in the lifting of the embargo against China.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was an event that helped unify a post-apartheid South Africa. Following South Africa's victory, Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa, wearing a Springboks rugby shirt and cap, presented the Webb Ellis Cup to the white South African captain: a symbolic act that opened up a way forward for a profoundly traumatized and fragmented society.

More recently, after the tragedy of 9/11, a tattered flag rescued from the World Trade Center site waved in the sky above the old Yankee Stadium. The World Series of 2001 not only provided solace to a nation in mourning, it also provided an opportunity for New Yorkers to rally around their beloved team in an act of heroic solidarity.

Political demonstration has been an integral part of the history of sports throughout the world. I found Mike Pence's decision to walk out at halftime because of the anthem protests to be an overt political demonstration. What makes the vice president's protest legitimate and the NFL player's protest inappropriate? Why can he use the sports arena to voice his opinion but the players should remain silent and obedient? Was that just another example of white people dictating the terms of who gets to speak and under what conditions their voice can be heard?

A protest where no one is moved to action is useless. The nonviolent strategy that the NFL players have employed certainly makes many fans and casual viewers uncomfortable (think how the restaurant sit-ins of the 50's and 60's made some people feel), but it has achieved what all social justice protests set out to do: it has forced people to make a choice. Because these demonstrations are so blatant, uncompromising, and persistent, they are making everyone take a side, including players, coaches, owners, advertisers, and, most importantly, families at home. In a major way, sports has provided yet another catalyst for addressing and transforming social change.


The NFL players have every right to kneel for racial justice before the American Flag or "modify their salute" in any way they please, according to Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. This is supported by the 1942 Supreme Court decision, West Virginia v. Barnette, regarding the requirement to salute the flag.

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," the Court wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens by word or act their faith therein."

"To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds," the Court said.

This ruling does not leave out the esteemed game of football.

Mr. Trump doesn't care about personal liberties other than the liberties that perpetuate his hunger for power. Mr. Pence, by walking out of the Colts-49ers game, thumbed his nose at the Constitution, which he has vowed under oath to protect. Now who really is unpatriotic?

The football players – so many of whom have suffered the condemnations, victimization, and injustice of direct, violent racism in America – kneel because they care about our country.

We should embrace this. We fought for this. We walked for this. We must feel the outrage about the plight of our brothers and sisters of color and of our whole country, and do something about it.

That is what I think about when I stand for or choose not to stand for the American flag.


Fighting drugs

On a neighborhood group's plea for stronger efforts to fight drug sales and use: I could not agree less with MNBN. Substance abuse – which, by the way, is not the only form of addiction – is a mental health issue. The attempt to use the legal system to treat this issue has little history of success. Are we really interested in criminalizing every individual who becomes addicted to and abuses prescriptions medication, as an example?

Addictive behaviors frequently result from self-medicating issues such as shame, depression, and anxiety. Increasing access to mental health and addiction treatment along with addressing our local issues of poverty would go much further in managing the issues of substance use and other addictive behaviors.