TAR HEEL VIEW: American liberty gives us freedom to stand, sit or kneel

Many Americans are outraged that protests over racial inequality in America have infiltrated the ranks of top-tier professional sports, but it the numbers suggest it was a sheer inevitability.

Roughly 70 percent of NFL players and 74 percent of NBA players are black, while those designated as black or African-American comprise 13.3 percent of the United States’ population.

President Donald Trump reignited the controversy Saturday and Sunday with a series of tweets condemning athletes who sit or kneel while the national anthem plays, touching off a national debate over patriotism, respect for the American flag and individual rights.

The tweetstorm began Saturday when Trump rescinded the NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House after star point guard Stephen Curry said Friday that he didn’t want to go.

In subsequent tweets, the president slammed NFL players who choose not to stand and place their hands over their hearts while the national anthem plays and the flag is displayed. He said athletes who disrespect the cherished American symbols should be fired.

It’s settled law that the government cannot require American adults or students to salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the national anthem. That would be compelled speech, a violation of the First Amendment.

While private employers like pro sports franchises can regulate player conduct, Trump’s intervention is likely to stay their hand. If a business is pressured by the commander-in-chief to require displays of patriotism, athletes could argue that the government is compelling their speech by proxy.

Athletes and sports executives largely condemned Trump’s comments. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a longtime Trump friend, said in a prepared statement that he is “deeply disappointed” by the president’s words.

Silent demonstrations continued on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers, a Bailey native who was born in Wilson and was a standout athlete at Southern Nash High, remained in the locker room during the anthem. He told The Charlotte Observer he wanted to protest Trump’s comments but chose not to kneel on the sideline because he did not want to be seen as disrespecting the flag, military or first responders.

The national anthem protests began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit the song out last season as a response to police mistreatment of minorities in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaepernick has paid a steep price for the controversial gesture, as he went unsigned during the offseason and is not currently on an NFL roster.

While we don’t endorse the protests, we acknowledge that Americans are free to choose whether to stand, sit or kneel. We’re glad we don’t live in a fascist or socialist country where loyalty oaths are mandatory. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience represent the American ideals for which our troops fought and died.

Americans don’t have to march in lockstep. Some of us can stand proudly with our hands over our hearts, others can take a knee, and we can all profess patriotism in our own way. Liberty, after all, is what makes our country truly great.

The Wilson Times