In Baltimore, thousands of us cry out “O!” – that’s “O!” for Orioles – as our civic contribution to the national anthem. We’re not disrespecting our military or nation, as President Donald J. Trump might explain it. We’re just expressing a little hometown pride during a song we hear a few hundred times a year before ballgames.
Back in the ‘60s, when the war in Vietnam was going badly and the political lying sustaining it was at its worst, some of us went to the old Memorial Stadium and silently stayed in our seats during the anthem.
Nobody said anything to us, nobody made any speeches condemning us. We’d made our little political statement, and all those standing had made theirs, and the world went on – much the way it might have if this president of ours hadn’t chosen to criticize professional athletes who don’t stand at attention for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Is there a gentler way to stage protest than simply taking a knee for about a minute-and-a-half? It’s certainly gentler than marching through the streets, crying, “Jews will not replace us.” It’s certainly gentler than killing an innocent woman by hitting her with a car.
And yet Donald Trump finds words to express contempt for these ballplayers and does not seem to take similar offense over neo-Nazis, white supremacists and race baiters.
And when asked about his contempt for the ballplayers – about 70 percent of whom, in the NFL, are African-American, and probably at least that high a percentage in pro basketball – Trump replied, “I haven’t said anything about race.”
Uh, excuse me.
Did he forget his remarks about the “fine people” demonstrating in Charlottesville? Did he forget his remarks about Mexican rapists and the so-called Mexican judge? Did he forget about his famous wall, and …?
Oh, hell, you know the list by now.
This is a president who has taken one ballplayer’s silent, dignified protest about racial inequality and police brutality and somehow turned it into a national dividing line over freedom of expression.
He doesn’t get it – that these ballplayers aren’t dissing the anthem or the flag. They’re out there under protection of the flag itself. It’s the flag, and all that it symbolizes, that precisely gives these ballplayers – and all of us – the freedom to express ourselves.
That’s the greatness of America – that we talk things out, that we allow ourselves the liberty of expression, and that each of us knows we have as much right to express ourselves as … well, as the president himself.
And if this president can tell the owners of sports teams that they ought to fire all the players who express themselves in ways Trump finds offensive, then what’s to stop him from telling anybody’s boss – yours or mine – to fire us for the same reason?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Follow #TakeAKnee on Twitter.
Above photo: Members of the Buffalo Bills kneel during the national anthem before their Sept. 24 game against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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