Rutecki: Kneeling for the national anthem is disrespectful

Two years ago, around 10,600 American servicemen stationed in Afghanistan prepared for a big day. They spent two months making decorations for an occasion that provides an intimate connection to the country back home they dearly love, Super Bowl Sunday. Likewise, our love for the military was showcased at the game, as the Washington Redskins cheerleaders took selfies with some of our soldiers and airmen.

Fast-forward to 2017, a time when many NFL players are refusing to stand for the national anthem. Imagine what the servicemen in Afghanistan must feel about this protest. Televised football, one of our military’s few escapes from the horrors of combat, now serves as a reminder that not every American supports them.

Rep. Brian Mast, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, explains his disdain for the NFL protests, saying, “I have taken a knee after jumping out of a helicopter as we looked for the enemy, taken a knee in front of the Soldiers Cross as we mourned a fallen brother and taken a knee in church. Any player who has taken a knee to protest this great country during its anthem should already be gone.”

Sadly, Mr. Mast is no longer able to take a knee. He lost both legs in Afghanistan after stepping on a roadside bomb in 2010, and was honorably discharged.

The meaning of the national anthem is inseparably linked to our military. In 1814, Francis Scott Key composed “The Star-Spangled Banner” after noticing an American flag still waving over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after a British attack. Its increasing popularity lead President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order in 1916, which made The Star-Spangled Banner the “national anthem of the United States” for all military ceremonies. It finally became our nation’s official national anthem in 1931.

Supporters of the NFL protests cite their purpose as bringing attention to racial injustice in the United States. “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert said, “Kneeling during the national anthem has everything to do with race…”

However, the history of our national anthem is not one that is based on racism. During the Civil War, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became an anthem for Union troops, who fought to end slavery. Although Union soldiers were mainly white men, they also included free and escaped black men. Take William Williams for example, an escaped slave who served in the U.S. infantry at Fort McHenry, and was killed by a British bomb.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in memory of Williams as much as any other Union hero. We know this because of the courageous abolitionist work of Francis Scott Key himself. Key put his reputation as a lawyer at risk by representing black people who were suing for freedom. Key represented slaves in an 1825 Supreme Court case and described their treatment as “extreme cruelty”, while arguing that his clients are men and therefore cannot have owners.  

Furthermore, the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner references freed slaves with, “O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand between their loved home and the war’s desolation.” At football games, however, people only hear the first verse of the song.

While I disagree with the national anthem protest Colin Kaepernick started, I commend him for his charitable work. For instance, Kaepernick started a Back to School Backpack Giveaway at the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York, which according to the NFL Players’ Association, “connects girls and young women to entrepreneurship opportunities, healthy meals, and STEM workshops”.  This initiative primarily serves the minority community, due to its location. Kaepernick’s generous community engagement activities are a more effective means of striving for racial justice than protesting the national anthem.

After observing the history of our national anthem, its purpose is clearly to honor our military. Hence, Colin Kaepernick and the NFL should choose a different platform to speak out about injustice, one that is not disrespectful to the men and women who risk their lives protecting us.  I believe we should continue to stand for “what so proudly we hailed” out of respect for the flag and the sacrifices our brave men and women in uniform make for it.

Paul Rutecki is a fourth-year student majoring in accounting who loves to play cello.