Thomas Jefferson and the Kneeling National Anthem Razorbacks

Why the Razorbacks’ national anthem kneeling fulfills some Founding Fathers’ vision for America

A statewide hubbub erupted earlier in November after six members of the Razorback women’s basketball team kneeled during a pre-game performance of the national anthem. “You all know that there’s been a lot of killings* from police officers of African-Americans and other minorities,” Razorback Jordan Danberry, a Conway native, said after the game at Bud Walton Arena. “Me and my teammates took a knee today during the national anthem to speak for those who are oppressed. As Razorback student-athletes, we have a platform to do that.”

Their head coach, Jimmy Dykes, and the UA athletic director Jeff Long defended their actions. “I am very, very proud of them,” Coach Dykes said. “They had very, very strong, well-informed, educated opinions based on their real-life experiences, their real-life emotions. Mr. Long added: “University campuses are places of learning and thus places where differences of opinion and varying perspectives are recognized. We respect the rights of our student-athletes and all individuals to express themselves on important issues in our nation.”

Already, thousands of Arkansans — including high-profile politicians — have begun blasting the Lady  Razorbacks who refused to stand. Laura Rushing, for instance, Tweeted: “I might just take a knee on UofA funding. Leadership needs to go!”

State senator Jason Rapert chimed in: “I agree Senator. Perhaps we reconsider the U of A budget since some in leadership don’t get it.”

I respectfully disagree, Sen. Rapert et al.

Public funding of higher education should not be cut because young women dared exercise their rights of free speech in front of fans who had paid to watch them do something else. Coach Dykes and Mr. Long should not be fired for their support of these women.

If anything, they should be praised.

A red white and blue flag wrapped around a soldier’s tomb is a strong symbol, sure. It often elicits strong emotions, yes. But a flag and a tomb are, at their core, manufactured products. The United States of America is supposed to represent something different.

The Razorbacks’ protest in Fayetteville reminds us the United States of America itself is a manmade invention, too. It had a beginning and will have an end. The more important things it represents, though, precede it and should persist long after it fades.

More than 240 years ago, the Founding Fathers did not conjure the United States as something that in and of itself should deserve and command respect, gratitude and unswerving loyalty.

Instead, they created it as a governing apparatus with a primary function of preserving the rights and freedoms of individuals living in specific geographic areas.  And one of the those liberties is the right to free speech without (financial or corporeal) punishment if said speech offends those in power.

The fabrication we call the “U.S.A.” exists to edify and protect its people, not the other way around.

The U.S.A. was founded as an ongoing political experiment meant to be refined and perfected by ongoing criticism, protest and peaceful dissent.  “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty,” George Washington wrote, “is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”

In a 1804 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote: ”No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Today’s “press” is more fragmented and prevalent now than in Jefferson’s newspaper-centric day. The protesting Razorbacks have taken of advantage of this. They deliberated with Coach Dykes beforehand on the consequences of their actions; they knew word of it would quickly spread on social media and online news sites.

So did Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who sparked this most recent round of athlete protests by sitting out of a national anthem in an August preseason game.  “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said afterword.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

This sentiment rubs many Arkansans the wrong way. They believe it disrespects the U.S. soldiers who have died in order to protect the U.S. and the very First Amendment rights the Lady Razorbacks exercised by kneeling on the court.

It doesn’t. Because often these soldiers and these athlete protestors act and suffer out of love for the very same thing: life and liberty. We can call it “American” life and liberty, but the adjective pales in importance to the nouns following it.

Granted, the costs entailed are on different scales. Soldiers can lose life and limb; Athlete protestors can lose sponsorship money and fan support. But both sides believe they are acting in defense of the things which matter most.

Hog fan Mike Todd touched on this in a recent post on the Razorback Coaches Facebook page. He wrote his father was a World War II Navy veteran. “When an activist in LR was going to burn the flag on the Capital steps I asked him what he thought of that. He said it was the guy’s right. I said ‘But you fought for that flag.’

I’ll never forget his words: ‘I didn’t fight for a flag. I fought for the rights it stands for – including burning it if you want to.’”

At its best, the “United States of America” and all the red, white and blue-clad pomp and circumstance this manmade invention may entail, provides a structure through which we can peacefully disagree and learn from that disagreement — without fear of retribution.

Before threatening to cut funding to Arkansas’ flagship university, our state’s leaders would do well to remember that.

 

*According to analysis by the Washington Post, black people in America are two and a half times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white Americans.