2017-10-12 / Opinion

Circus Maximus

Let me say from the get-go, football has never been my favorite sport. Baseball is my thing and has been since I was a kid. I played third base, but my aspirations ended prematurely. My grade school coach figured out I couldn’t make the throw from third to first.

I was relegated to the stands thereafter. But my reassignment did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. I have long continued to enjoy a ball game as an adult, of which there are now certain benefits. They include dollar beer night, senior citizen discounts, and witnessing excited future fans scrambling for a ball in the stands. There is also the satisfaction of yelling at the umpire as if you are the batter’s mother protesting a bad call.

In Florida, a ballgame is never hard to find, at whatever level of play you fancy. But, if baseball is not your passion, football season might be the best next thing. I don’t get too worked up about the opening of the season, but this year, it was different.

For starters, Hurricane Irma’s visit to Florida played a major role in disrupting the season kickoff schedule. That’s a big deal for students and grads devoted to following their school’s team, even for someone like me. Almost every Florida high school canceled games and the state’s seven universities did, too, that belong to the Football Bowl Subdivision. It’s the crème-de la-crème of college football. So, post-Irma, the football season was already off to a bit of rocky start.

Seeking alternatives, football fans settled into their Barcaloungers and turned to the National Football League for their football fix. Then all hell broke loose.

The president launched a culture war grenade right into the nacho bowl. Instead of the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, we got a seat on the 50-yard line of a brawl fest in political football.

It had roots in 2016.

Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers backup quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem. His gesture was in protest of police violence against African- Americans and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

His protest did not go unnoticed. It ultimately cost Kaepernick his job. The NFL essentially blackballed him from playing in the league. Though the controversy smoldered on, it was a slow burn. The NFL football lived on.

Then, last month, while attending a political rally in Alabama, President Trump lobbed an incendiary, rhetorical bomb into the embers of the controversy and it erupted into a conflagration that engulfed the nation.

He called the players in the National Football League who either showed support for or mimicked Kaepernick’s protest “sons of bitches.” He demanded the NFL fire them all and failing that, the fans boycott the NFL. He lamented NFL football was no fun anymore anyway because, regrettably, the physical foreplay of brain-damaging hits among players is now discouraged in the sport.

Well, holy crap, Batman. He started a firestorm. Rarely has the nation chased its tail so convincingly and with such wild abandon. We went from NFL football to Circus Maximus.

While the nation indulged itself in self-immolation regarding who is and is not a true patriot, crucial issues of national importance languished on the sidelines. To knee or not to knee? That was the question.

Meanwhile, the future of America’s healthcare system, the fate of 800,000 young Dreamers; and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico all but disappeared. Did I also mention the threat of a nuclear war with North Korea?

The irony was that it was highly suspect whether the man doing the flame-throwing was worthy of calling the question. Think five military deferments, Muslim Gold Star family, a decorated P.O.W., and Charlottesville. So, I switched channels. I watched Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary, “The Vietnam War.”

One of the American veterans interviewed and appearing in multiple episodes is John Musgrave, formerly a corporal in the U.S. Marines. He went into combat in Vietnam as an 18-year-old.

When discharged from the military and back in the states, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Its purpose was “to oppose the United States policy and participation in the Vietnam War.” Musgrave became part of the peaceful demonstrations across the country to end the war.

Musgrave served the nation with honor, but on his return as a civilian, he struggled to define for himself the meaning of patriotism. He answered his country’s call to fight in a war he later vehemently protested.

Says Musgrave, “Yes, I was a Marine. But I was first and foremost a citizen of the United States of America. And being a citizen, I have certain responsibilities. And the largest of those responsibilities is standing up and saying to your government “no” when it is doing something you think is not in your nation’s interest. That is the most important job every citizen has.”

By Musgrave’s measure, those who take a knee in protest of America’s wrongs are patriots, too. They are challenging America to strive always to be better than it is. ¦

— Leslie Lilly is a native Floridian writes frequently on issues of politics, public policy and philanthropy, earning national recognition for her leadership in the charitable sector. Email her at llilly@floridaweekly.com and read past blog posts on Tumblr at llilly15. Tumblr.com.

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