Love him or hate him, we can all agree that no one can touch a nerve like our Provocateur-in-Chief.

President Trump’s drumbeat of pressure on the NFL to require players to stand in a respectful way during the national anthem has done a terrific job of getting a lot of people angry at the leadership of the nation’s most revered sports institution.  The weekly who-will-kneel-today game being played during the Star Spangled Banner is now nearly as important as the game on the field.

President Trump echoed the thoughts of many when he described any NFL player who takes a knee during the anthem as a son of a bitch who should be dropped from the team roster.   His solution for team owners who decline to follow his helpful suggestion is for fans to boycott the team, or, better yet, the entire NFL.  As a businessman, Trump completely understands that when laws won’t get you where you want to go, economic pressure will usually do the trick.

We have endured plenty of peaceful protests over the last few years, from the far left’s Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan to the far right’s white racists joining the KKK to spread the gospel of racial purity in Charlottesville.  (Well, that one at least started peacefully.)

Those who disagree with Occupy or Charlottesville may cringe at what happened, but no one has demanded limitations on the right to peacefully express your dissatisfaction with…whatever.   But when the flag is involved, Americans get very touchy, very quickly.

And with good reason.  This summer I had the extraordinary privilege of touring the US military cemetery at Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France as the colors were being retired at the end of the day.  There were about three hundred people visiting the cemetery that afternoon, but when the familiar notes of Taps sounded and the flag slowly came down into the waiting arms of the soldiers who would receive and retire it, the silence was immediate and complete.  Gentle waves could easily be heard rolling into shore a half mile away at the bottom of the bluff.   The respect and reverence for the flag was as palpable as the late afternoon sunlight.

We Americans imbue our flag with deep meaning.  It is a symbol of both the freedoms we cherish, and those who died to preserve them.   Disrespecting the flag is the moral equivalent of disrespecting our honored dead.

So, yes, we’re touchy about our flag.   Touchy enough to turn an occasional deaf ear on the constitution which enshrines the rights we hold so close.  I’m afraid the First Amendment is pretty clear:  it’s okay to take part in peaceful protests in America.  Even if someone wants to wave signs filled with racial hate.  Or decides to take a knee.

But I’ve been told, “Yes, but the flag is different.  The rules should be different.”   I’ve noticed that many people voicing that opinion are literalists when it comes to the Second Amendment (“what part of ‘no laws limiting gun ownership’ don’t you understand?”) but seek a more flexible view of the First.

I don’t envy the NFL management on this.  If they flat-out deny their players the right to protest, they know the lawsuits will be immediate and expensive to defend—not to mention knowing they’ll lose.  It’s that annoying First Amendment thing.  Presumably the president knows this too, which moves the entire argument from constructive criticism to political theater, or perhaps an episode in a reality show.

Personally, I think a nation that has endured flag burnings and sometimes violent Viet Nam war protests can endure a few guys taking a knee for as long as they care to do so.  It strikes me as one of those prices we pay to live in a country that protects the right of free speech for us all.   But that’s just me.

But if the NFL does force players to stand during the national anthem, the president will deservedly claim a personal victory.   Then he can move on to his other NFL concerns, like the league’s fuss over concussions, which, in his words, is “ruining the sport.”

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