There has been a lot of talk this week about sports and politics, particularly with respect to the NFL and the National Anthem. While this issue has been in the news since Colin Kaepernick began his protests last season, the noise surrounding the issue has reached new heights in the past week since President Trump weighed in. As I think about this issue, I believe most of the talk (and I don’t use the word dialogue because I don’t see much listening, just people talking over each other) around it has been counterproductive. Unfortunately, I also believe the discussion surrounding this issue is indicative of a larger societal problem we face.
Protests during the National Anthem (I don’t like the term Anthem protests as I don’t believe anyone is protesting the National Anthem) have become a test for people’s feelings on free speech. However, I fear that people’s stance on free speech with regards to this issue is largely being determined by whether they agree with the message behind the protest. Those who believe in what the players are doing are inclined to believe players have a right to do what they are doing and that they are advocating for positive change. If people disagree with the message of the protest they are likely to be offended by the protest and believe it is unpatriotic or disrespectful to the soldier and other first responders who many believe the Anthem represents. As such, this has become an either/or issue. You are either pro-Anthem or pro-protesters. I believe this is symbolic of many American’s view on free speech as a whole. If you agree with the message, it is a free speech issue and you support First Amendment rights. If you disagree with the message, it is offensive and should not be allowed. I think the issue is much more nuanced.
This is where my concern comes in. Too many of us look only for information that confirms our beliefs. We read and watch news that aligns with our societal or political beliefs. Any source that disagrees is ‘biased’, if only because it doesn’t affirm our ideology. As such, we only further ingrain our own beliefs and limit our exposure to different ideas. I think one bad example of this is college ‘safe spaces’, where students are allowed to opt out of exposing themselves to information which makes them uncomfortable. How can one go through life never exposing themselves to ideas which challenge their beliefs? It is doing a great disservice to allow students to live in this bubble of a narrow comfort zone. That is terrible preparation for the real world. Beyond that, as educators we have a responsibility to respectfully challenge students to see alternative viewpoints. It doesn’t mean we have to change our minds, but we should consider other’s thoughts because we often learn the most when we do. That ability to empathize allows us to gain deeper understanding. I believe reasonable people can disagree, but unfortunately I see our society moving in a direction where many people believe anyone who disagrees with them must be unreasonable.
One of the things I enjoy about coaching at Holy Name is the diverse backgrounds and our student athletes. I believe our athletes learn and grow as people as a result of being around others who have different life experiences. I hear our players debating the societal and political issues of the day. While they may disagree, they debate good-naturedly and listen to each other. And that is the key – the ability to listen to those who are different. As coaches we always talk about the willingness to expand your comfort zone as a player and learn new skills. At first, those new things are difficult. However, over time they become comfortable with them and become better players. I think the same is true of exposure to uncomfortable ideas.
As this relates to the National Anthem, I have my own beliefs about what the Anthem stands for and how I show respect for that. Others may have different opinions and that should lead to discussion. I hope that as a country we can begin to listen to each other, respect each other’s differences, and truly have a dialogue as opposed to just waiting for a turn to talk.