Sport that Unifies by David Montgomery

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I do not understand how there can be a shred of sympathy or support for professional football players who kneel during the National Anthem. Leaving aside the vagueness of whatever message they are trying to send, their implicit claim that employees have a right to make personal political statements on company time while acting as representatives of the company is nonsense.

By now, the strength of my political, religious and moral convictions should be pretty clear, as well as my willingness to speak my mind. But I knew exactly what rules I had to obey when I was in front of clients or could be identified with the company that employed me. Any political activity or symbolism was way out of bounds as a matter of principle. I was never to speak about subjects on which I had less than complete professional qualification except in personal and private conversations. The opinions and feelings of my clients were to be treated with respect at all times, as a matter of common decency and of self-preservation. My employers were always adamant about maintaining a considerate and courteous image, and I knew that I had many competitors who would be happy to exploit any distance that I let develop between clients and myself.

I certainly would have been disciplined if I started a public presentation on trends on gasoline prices by praying for the babies that would die in abortions that day. Nor would I ever expect to be invited back. Yet I doubt that the professional athletes taking a knee to publicize “Black Lives Matter” are stating convictions any stronger than mine about abortion.

Nor do I see being unfairly attacked by a political figure as a mitigating factor in perpetuating bad behavior. I have been there. Senator McCain once rose in the Senate to accuse me of being paid off by oil companies to reach the conclusions I published about a bill that he had introduced. But I did not start every subsequent public appearance by repeating that the McCain-Lieberman bill would cost 3 percent of GDP and do nothing to solve climate change. Yet professional football players doubled-down on disrupting the National Anthem in order to get back at President Trump for calling them out about their protests.

If they really cared about the ills they protest, football players might try doing something that actually has a cost. They might, for example, collectively donate their salaries from one game to an organization that does something to create safer communities or to keep black youth from committing the crimes that bring them to the attention of police.

Or, if a player feels so strongly that he cannot play football without expressing himself, he might just refuse to play until the wrong he protests is righted. That, at least, would show more respect for paying customers than acting in a way that diminishes their enjoyment of the game. A game, by the way, that they paid top dollar and possibly waited for years to attend.

I know what it is like to be told to keep quiet. I had an employer inform me that I could not write opinion pieces for a newspaper without prior review and censorship, that anything I said in public belonged to them. I left that company, voluntarily, shortly thereafter. I did not continue publishing and expecting no consequences. Yet professional football players seem to expect their teammates and employers to tolerate whatever they feel like doing.

To be clear, I am convinced that NFL players who “take a knee” or refuse to come on the field for the National Anthem are cheating their fans.

Not long ago, my wife (a Navy veteran) and I attended the Navy-Air Force football game. That was the kind of experience football is supposed to be. No protests, no disruption, everyone standing and veterans saluting while we sang the National Anthem — in tune and with respect, by the way – and everyone present feeling a sense of brotherhood and shared enjoyment. We watched young men, all of whom had the much higher calling of preparing to serve their country, give everything they had to win the game. Navy pulled way ahead by the half, Air Force figured out the Navy offense well enough to stop one or two drives and caught up, then went ahead. Then Navy scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds on the clock.

The Navy quarterback, by my count, ran for at least two touchdowns and well over 100 yards, and still threw a perfect pass to end the game. He does not expect to sign for $435,000 or $10 million when he graduates, and he comes to the game expecting to do nothing but play the best football he can for his team and the crowd.

While there, I did not think about the difficulties of getting true tax reform, or the polarization of American politics, or any of the other depressing political topics of the day. I did think about this column, I confess, as I was conscious of that day and that game being a time when I was part of the kind of country I remember, one where everyone acknowledged they were part of a bigger whole.

Esther and I were on the Gold side, which those who attend Navy football know put us in the middle of Air Force fans. While others in America are defining themselves into more and more divided identity groups, we felt kinship even with the Air Force fans around us. We knew that we shared interest in football, good feelings toward the teams, dedication to our country and respect for its symbols.

That is what the overpaid NFL players who take a knee are stealing from their fans. They have taken away the opportunity of spending an afternoon enjoying sports and being part of a community with common interests. With all this whining about safe spaces in colleges and searching for microaggressions in every kind of normal behavior, you would think that we could at least watch sports without having political theatrics forced upon us.

And the owners need to acquire the backbone of other employers who insist their employees show respect to their customers and make that a requirement for anyone who wants to wear their uniform.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Richard Marks says:

    Yes, David, by now your political, religious and moral convictions are pretty clear. Perhaps mine are as well. We are fortunate to have the liberty to speak our minds without fear… so far.

    I served our country honorably from 1968-1972 and proud to say that on at least one occasion during my tenure peacefully protested our presence in Vietnam. Since my employment was 24/7, my protest was on “company time”. The protest was also observed by my commanding officer who told me he respected my position and actions. My “fitness’ reports clearly showed
    I performed all duties well above average and was even awarded a meritorious unit citation for actions performed during a critical incident. Thankfully, I was not the only one in our country who was willing to take a stand and help our country change course, albeit far too late to spare the lives of so many Americans and Vietnamese. Coincidentally, thirteen minutes after receiving The Spy and reading your piece, I received another email. This one, from the Aspen Institute, was an invitation to a luncheon with authors discussing their new book, From Enemies to Partners-Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange. Change is not always comfortable. I only wish more of our elected officials would take a stand in defense of civl rights as many of our citizens have done recently.

    Sometimes taking a stand takes kneeling as in prayer. Why can’t we kneel in protest and still stand united? That is true greatness and democracy. We bow our heads in prayer, yet Native Americans and African Americans were bowed into submission. Symbolic gestures abound and semantics confuse, but what truly matters lies within. “Sometimes, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential can truly be invisible to the eyes.”

    Our President unfairly impugned the character of American citizens. It’s one of the very few things he seems to have mastered in a career entangled with lawsuits and bullying. Regardless,
    I very much respect your defense of our flag and your opinion, but I fail to understand your defense of a person whose lacks decorum and whose behavior is reprehensible. Many people feel he is dividing our country. I disagree. His behavior is actually uniting us as more people reject his divisive rhetoric and work together to strengthen our communities.

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