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What does it mean to be an American?

A big question, to be sure, and one that could easily garner a multitude of different responses. However, an oft-cited perk of being an American citizen is that all-empowering notion of “freedom.”

Let’s define the word, shall we? Merriam-Webster’s first definition is “the quality or state of being free.” Now, that’s a bit vague and redundant, so let’s dig deeper. Sub-definition a: “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.”

Great. I don’t know about you, but I’m all about that freedom.

The problem arises when a person decides that someone else’s freedom is impinging on their own and decides to then make a big fuss about taking away that other person’s freedom.

Let’s talk about football.

When you say “American sports,” football is on the shortlist of things that immediately come to mind. America is often defined by the things we decide to do differently than the rest of the world for little to no good reason: Fahrenheit, Imperial measurements, lack of universal healthcare, inventing a new sport and giving it the same name as preexisting sport . . . We have all sorts of wacky ideas.

Football is a hugely popular, heavily influential sport in America. The top players make millions of dollars a year and experience great fame. Super Bowl Sunday is one of the country’s largest national events.

If you wanted to peacefully show your distaste for the horrible injustice you see happening in your country, wouldn’t you take the opportunity to do so on a highly visible platform where it might actually make a difference? I know I would.

When Colin Kaepernick began the Take A Knee movement among American football players last year, he was doing exactly that. Whether you agree with the movement or not, you have to admit that it’s definitely getting widespread attention.

Unfortunately, most of the attention has been focused on the debate over “disrespecting” the American flag, with some people even saying that it’s disrespectful to the veterans who have fought to defend this country.

Now, maybe I’m just not patriotic enough to understand this, but I always thought the flag was supposed to represent all of America. When we sing the national anthem and look at the red, white and blue symbol of our country, shouldn’t that represent everything that our nation stands for? Yes, war and conflict are a big part of America’s history and world impact, but I don’t think that means that our flag is only representative of the people who fought in those wars. Every American should be able to look at the American flag and feel like it belongs to them — that, in whatever small way, it’s representing them to the rest of the world.

Kaepernick and those who have followed him are not protesting the veterans. They’re not even necessarily protesting the flag. They are protesting the fact that not everyone in this country can look at that flag and feel proud of their citizenship.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Eric Reid discussed how he and Kaepernick had first decided to take a knee during the national anthem.

“We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system,” Reid wrote. “We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless.”

The message, if you take the time to hear it, is very clear: these athletes are disappointed with the way our criminal justice system treats people of color and horrified by the injustice they see, and they’re doing what they can to tell the world that it’s not okay.

“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid wrote further on in his New York Times piece. “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite.”

Our country has no laws stating that a person is required to stand for the national anthem. It is simply a societally enforced cultural requirement to show that we are proud of our country. These players are not doing anything illegal, nor are they hurting anyone else with their protest.

In other words, they are exercising their own personal freedoms.

“Freedom” sub-definition b: “liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another.”

Our nation is built on freedom and liberation, and it is also built on the power of protest. We learn about how the Boston Tea Party motivated the American Revolution or how Rosa Parks’ resistance of bus segregation was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, but then we turn around and see the president of this country calling a peacefully protesting athlete a “son of a bitch” who should be fired from his position on the team.

If you believe that when these athletes show solidarity for the disenfranchised citizens of our nation, they are somehow infringing on your own freedom to love and respect your country, then I think you ought to take a really good look at what that freedom has cost in the past — and what it continues to cost in the present.

Maybe someone else’s freedom is at stake now, and maybe it’s time we all took a knee and proved once again that American protest can make an impact on history.

—Cayla Fronhofer, Editor-in-Chief

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