The NFL and Compulsory Patriotism


When I was a high school student in the 1990s, there was a period of time when I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance during homeroom. I don’t remember what was the breaking point for me on a specific day, and I don’t remember when or if I rejoined those standing, but I very much do remember my thinking behind the choice: what was a school doing forcing me to pledge my fealty to my country day in and out at eight o’clock in the morning no matter how I was feeling?

It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy about being a US citizen; I just resented the constant demands for me to demonstration that connection. Did they think if I didn’t pledge on a daily basis I would change affiliations? Did they think that the pledge lasted a mere twenty-four hours?

I was a kid asking big questions in my own small way and testing the boundaries of where my freedom resided, but it was a telling moment for me—mostly because nothing happened. I just stayed quietly seated each day as everyone else stood, and the world kept spinning on; the government didn’t need my Pavlovian conditioning after all.

Years later my mother told me that one of the high school teachers approached her to report my vexing behavior, and I applaud my mother for not even bringing it up with me at the time. She brushed off the teacher’s concerns and let me do what I was doing without my needing to explain it to her. The fact that the school left it at that, though, speaks to the privilege I already held, even as a child. I was seen as a bright kid, and for that reason I was rarely questioned. Even more so, I was white and upper middle class with a mother on the school board. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the world was going to let me test those boundaries again and again while others with citizenship that was perceived as more precarious—with common destabilizers such as non-whiteness and class—would have found repercussions even then, particularly if seen as commenting on their precariousness.

Last fall, I was reminded of that distinction via a young black woman who was expelled from school for not standing for the pledge of allegiance. India Landry is now suing the school, and in a brief submitted to the court it states that she was expelled from school for refusing to stand for the anthem and was told by her principal, “this is not the NFL.” Therefore, her refusal to stand was directly tied to the national debate about race that NFL players have been raising through their own silent protest of the national anthem. The student articulated her intentions to the Houston CBS affiliate KHOU by saying, “I don’t think the flag is what it says it is for—for liberty and for justice and for all of that. It’s not obviously what is going on in America today.” Her position, however, was ruled by a principal as unacceptable, and he particularly seemed to find offense at a perceived tie to the larger NFL protest, as his earlier quotation suggests. Because of that tie, it seems, that she was not granted the same privilege that I received. Honestly, though, her protest shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege; it is a right.

This discussion about the pledge in public schools has already been decided by the Supreme Court during World War II under West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette in 1943. At that time it was Jehovah’s Witnesses whose citizenship was being questioned and their children who were being expelled because they believed that their religion required them not to bow to any other image than god—including the flag. The court ruled in their favor based on the Fourteenth Amendment that promised equal protection under the law, on the First Amendment and their freedom of speech, and because their desire for their rights did not infringe on the rights of others. Their behavior in the ruling was deemed “peaceable and orderly.” The state was going too far in “a compulsion of students to declare a belief.” This is the law of the land.

The protest of black men in the NFL shouldn’t be viewed as much more complicated, especially now that the president, as a direct representative of the government, has stepped in to state that he believes in forcing this display of patriotism on players or firing them. The Supreme Court case was precisely about disallowing the government from such forced actions.

Instead what we should see is that those protesting are using the privilege and platform they have via their profession that gives them an audience, respect, and class status to make a powerful statement, but their black bodies are too often overwhelming the ability for others to see their silent protest as a call to conversation and action. Black Americans were told not to march in the streets after Ferguson because it was seen as too violent, but now even this most “peaceable and orderly” protest is seen as too disruptive, which of course is the point. If you don’t notice it, it isn’t much of a protest, but a more “respectable” protest I can hardly imagine. Too many Americans don’t want to grant these players the full access to their rights that I was easily granted as a teenaged white girl. These viewers just want to get back to football when, for many, this is not a game.

The goal of the protest is for us to talk and do something in response to the protest itself. Their statement has nothing to do with military service members; this is a false narrative to discredit their actions and sway all of us from the pressing conversation. These players are taking a knee to protest the way that black American have been treated in this country. Black lives matter, they’re saying. They should be treated the same ways as everyone else, including a white girl in Pennsylvania. It’s really that simple.

My protest was about my own maturation process, but I was allowed to make it; their protest is much more important because it is precisely asking us to talk to each other about the issues of race and equity in our culture, and push toward solutions. For instance, how should we be training our police? Might we reform them into caretakers instead of asking them to too often take on the role of punishers? What is protection? What is care? What is the force we want our government to enact, and how might we instead care for each other? A piece of cloth is not being disrespected, but many black Americans are being disrespected, and killed. Let’s talk about that, and then let’s do something about it.


Feature image © Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – Washington Redskins National Anthem Kneeling. Sourced via Creative Commons.

Abigail G. H. Manzella is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Migrations. She has taught and written on American literature and culture, particularly as they relate to issues of space, race, and gender, at the University of Missouri, Yeshiva University, Centre College, Tufts, and the University of Virginia. You can read more about her work at or on Facebook @AbbyManzellaAuthor. More from this author →