There is a deep irony in the debate surrounding the 2017 NFL player protests. Many, including our president, have suggested the protests should end. They say all NFL players should stand for the national anthem, but this suggestion is profoundly problematic. It is contrary to the American tradition.
Peaceful protests are the lifeblood of the democratic republic that is the United States of America. Protests, however, even when they are peaceful, make many Americans feel uncomfortable. Instead of listening to the issues underlying a protest, the very idea of a protest immediately makes many people want to simply “tune out.”
Thus what many, including our president, now say: NFL players should not be allowed to kneel during the national anthem. Indeed, there is good reason why many Americans are offended and angry at what NFL players are doing. They see it as disrespectful to the flag, the national anthem and our nation. They claim it is unpatriotic. They say that players should not be able to hijack games — fun sporting events — to make football Sundays a political stage.
Certainly, any citizen is entitled to hold and express such views, but suggestions that NFL players must all stand for the anthem overlook what our nation stands for.
Patriotism, defined as love or devotion for country, is an admirable characteristic that we should all desire to have. We should all desire that our fellow citizens share our patriotic values. But patriotism is not a sentiment that can be forced upon anyone. Requiring all NFL players to stand at attention for the national anthem — or putting economic or social pressure on them to do so — is nothing more than coerced patriotism.
Coerced patriotic behavior is not a new idea, and it never ends well when put in practice. In the 1930s, coerced patriotic behavior was an essential piece in the rise to power of the German Nazi Party. German citizens and even foreign tourists, including Americans, who did not provide the proper salute during parades or at concerts were often arrested, beaten and bullied by German citizens and police. This practice did not breed a devoted following based on love of country. It bred a fanatically devoted following based on fear of reprisal. Is that what we want for America? So far in our history, we have always stood as a nation for the exact opposite: not coerced speech, but free speech.
Patriotism, like any view, has to be freely chosen, and it must be freely expressed. There is a stark difference between choosing to be patriotic and being coerced into patriotic behavior. For a nation that long has been a beacon of liberty to the world, compelling patriotism is not just ironic, it is dangerous.
If we really want our fellow citizens to share our patriotic beliefs and values, we should focus on addressing the issues that are the source of the protest — not on silencing those who are upset. If social injustices have occurred that make our fellow citizens not feel love and devotion to our country, why would we not want to address those issues?
I believe that if we did just that, the protests would end. Not because the protesting players were coerced but because they chose to. We as Americans should always want our actions and the actions of our fellow citizens to be based on choice, never coercion.
Justin Hatch was born in Idaho and raised in Washington and California. He is a business attorney, father of four and proud American.