Sportscaster Bob Costas appeared on CNN over the weekend to talk about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem — and provided an important perspective on patriotism while he was at it.
It’s been more than a year since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick quietly sat out the national anthem before a pre-season game to protest police violence in America. On Sunday, dozens of players around the league followed in his footsteps after President Donald Trump demanded players stand during the anthem.
In a brilliant segment on CNN, Costas contextualized the protests, asking us all to take a step back and ask ourselves a few fundamental questions about what it means to be a patriot.
How did we get to this place where professional sports have become so linked to patriotism and the military, anyway?
“Patriotism and the flag have been conflated,” Costas explained.
“If you go to see ‘Hamilton,’ which is about the founding of the republic, no one says, ‘Wait a minute! Don’t raise the curtain until we hear the national anthem.’ When you went to see ‘[Saving] Private Ryan,’ no one said, ‘Turn off the projector until we’ve had the national anthem,'” Costas said. “It’s in sports where this stuff happens — sometimes movingly, sometimes, I’d submit, cynically.”
The story of how sports became synonymous with patriotism has roots in wartime support for soldiers but also in “paid patriotism.” A 2015 report commissioned by the offices of Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake (both R-Arizona) found that the Department of Defense had spent millions of dollars in recent years paying pro sports leagues to hold “patriotic” events. Until 2009, NFL players weren’t even required to be on the sidelines during the anthem, much less stand at attention as it played.
As Costas suggested, if patriotism only means showing blind fealty to the flag and military, that’s easy. Much more difficult is recognizing that patriotism can take many other forms.
“Because wrapping yourself in the flag and honoring the military is something which nobody is going to object to,” he said. “We all respect their sacrifice. We all honor their sacrifice, and yet what it has come to mean, is that the flag is primarily and only about the military.”
Patriotism can be expressed in a lot of different ways, Costas emphasized — and those forms of patriotism don’t always relate to the flag or the military.
“Martin Luther King was a patriot, Susan B. Anthony was a patriot, dissidents are patriots, school teachers and social workers are patriots,” he explained.
Back in 2016, after Kaepernick first sat out the anthem (he sat for one game but switched to taking a knee as a way to show respect for the flag and the military, as ironic in the current context as it may be), he explained why he was protesting. His explanation fits perfectly with Costas’s definition of patriotism.
“When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand,” Kaepernick said at the time. “There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
Those are the patriots we need in this country, now more than ever. The ones unwilling to simply accept the status quo, but to fight for American ideals.