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Why We Stand

With the NFL season about to begin and many players planning on protesting during the national anthem, I was told recently that if we really want to make sports apolitical, we should eliminate the national anthem before games all together.

The singing our national anthem is not a political statement, it’s a unifying moment. It is not advocating for one political position or one political party over the other. That moment is meant to bring us all together under one flag. It is an acknowledgement that although there are two different competing teams, and the participants and fans may all be very different, we are all Americans. We share that in common. That unifies everyone in the Arena.

The national anthem is meant to be apolitical, transcending our political differences. In that moment, there is no Democrat or Republican, no black or white, no Christian or Muslim, none of those things that tend to divide us are present. We are one. E pluribus unum – "Out of many, one". It is those who have co-opted that moment of unity for their own cause who have turned it into something divisive and political. The one moment when we shed our political divisions and came together as one, has been turned it into something that pits one American against another American.

Many years ago, I played in the World League of American Football, for the London Monarchs. My team played games in Germany, Spain and Canada. And before each game in those foreign countries, they would play that country’s national anthem, and I and my teammates, stood proudly, respecting their country by respecting their flag and anthem. And when the United States national anthem was played, the people in the stands, stood and respected our country by respecting our flag and anthem. No one kneeled or protested. There was a reciprocity of respect that the citizens of two nations gave to each other’s flags and anthems. That was a unifying moment, a bringing together of not only one people under one flag, but people from two nations coming together in that one moment in time.

When I stood on the sidelines while they played the Star-Spangled Banner, along with God Save the Queen, or Oh, Canada, or Deutschlandlied, honoring the anthem and flag not only of my country, but of other sovereign nations, it was a great moment. I felt part of their country. I was an American, but in those moments, I was also British, and German, and Canadian. I shared something profound and important with the citizens of those nations. Almost like when John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin during the Cold War and declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner" to tell the people of West Berlin that he along with all free people in the world are united with them in their cause.

Those moments are as fond of memories as I have ever had on a playing field. Looking back, they were as important as the game itself. They gave me a true glimpse of what sports can do. How unifying and healing sports can be. Even though we are different people from different countries, we were unified. And if we can come together in those moment, we can come together in other moments because we are all human beings. We are more alike than we are different. And if we continue to seek out and fully embrace those unifying moments, maybe the world would be a safer, more caring, more loving place.

But if we continue to use the moments meant to unify us, to divide us, the world will not be as safe, not as loving, not as unified. So, it would be a mistake to remove the national anthem, and it is equally wrong to politicize the national anthem as many are doing. Our nation and our world are as divided as they have ever been. Why would we remove a moment that is meant to unify us during these trying times? Maybe, we are this divided because we have turned our moments of unity into displays of political division.

So, the NFL is going to sing two National Anthems before each game, both representing the United States; The Star-Spangled Banner and Lift Every Voice and Sing, often referred to as the black national anthem. Having two separate distinct anthems for one country is not unifying, it’s divisive. Anthems are like quarterbacks, if you have two, you have none. So, the introduction of a second national anthem is meant to discredit the first. It’s the balkanization of the United States, dividing us even more. But there will be players kneeling during our national anthem, and disrespecting our flag as if doing so means nothing.

But our symbols do mean something. As a Cowboys player and coach, the Star meant something to me. It was a unifying symbol throughout the organization. When Terrell Owens, playing for the 49ers, scored a touchdown in the old Texas Stadium, and ran to mid-field to celebrate on and disrespect the Star, Cowboy safety George Teague sprinted to midfield, jacked him up and knocked him off the Star. Owens wasn’t dancing on an innocuous piece of turf. He was dancing on the Star, and George Teague defended the Star because the Star means something, something important, something unifying to the team that Owens wanted to take away, to disrespect each of the Cowboy players. Owens knew exactly what he was doing and what it meant. The Star represents the Cowboys. The Star represents what the organization stands for. The Star represents every player on the team. And every player who ever went into battle wearing the Star was disrespected by Owens in that moment, just as every soldier who has ever went into battle under the flag of the United States is disrespected when someone disrespects the flag by kneeling.

The symbol of the United States, our flag means something. There are not any more iconic pictures of our country then the picture the United States Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, and the New York Firefighters raising our flag at ground zero. Raising of the American flag in those tragic and dire moments was a symbol of strength. We may have been down, but we were not out. Our broken nation came together under that flag. It was a symbol of unity because we were together, unified in that moment by what the flag represents. And it became a symbol of victory, not just a physical victory, but a moral victory, a victory of the ideas and principles that the flag represents over the forces that were trying to tear those ideas and principles down. The people who kneel for our national anthem and the American flag, are, unwittingly, doing what the Japanese during World War 2, and the Terrorist on 9/11 tried, but failed to do, tear apart the unifying fabric of our nation.

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Judd Garrett is a former NFL player, coach and executive. He is a frequent contributer to the website Real Clear Politics, and has recently published his first novel, No Wind

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