National anthem controversy draws strong response in Delaware

DOVER — The American flag means different things to different people.

To some, it’s a symbol of freedom, an icon representing America’s founding principles. But to others, it’s a reminder of injustice.

A controversy created last year when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of what he sees as racial injustice in the country has erupted in recent weeks, burning hotter than ever after President Trump blasted players who kneel for the anthem.

In a Sept. 22 speech in Alabama, he said he’d like to see NFL owners punish players who don’t stand for the anthem, which he called “a total disrespect for everything we stand for.” A player who acts that way, the president said, is “son of a bitch.”

NFL teams condemned the statement, and players around the league knelt during the anthem the following Sunday.

Others remained standing and locked arms in unity, and a few teams stayed in their locker rooms during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Absent a professional sports team, Delaware does not have a particularly strong connection to the ongoing strife, but that doesn’t mean Delawareans don’t have strong feelings on the matter.

A spokesman for the University of Delaware said in an email Friday members of the volleyball team were “considering kneeling” during the playing of the national anthem before that night’s game, but he was otherwise unaware of any other protests by UD athletes.

“As Blue Hens, we pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the university said in a statement. “Our campus culture, rooted in the open and free exchange of ideas, recognizes individuals’ rights to express their views in a peaceful manner. We respect one another and believe that our diverse backgrounds, perspectives and opinions are what make our community so special.”

A Delaware State University spokesman said he did not know of any demonstrations. Both the DSU and UD football teams are not on the field when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played at their stadiums.

A Wesley College spokeswoman said school officials were unaware of any protests during the anthem by Wesley players.

In an email, a Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency “has not received any reports of related school protests.” Subsequent questions about what, if any, guidelines govern protesting were not answered by the department.

This weekend’s NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway are likely to see a more fervent response than usual to the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

NASCAR fans are more likely to be white and older than fans of the NFL, meaning they are more likely to object to athletes not standing during the playing of the anthem. American flags are a familiar sight in the parking and RV lots around speedways on race weekends. Confederate flags are also not uncommon.

In the wake of the NFL protests last week, multiple NASCAR owners said they would fire employees who do not stand for the anthem, leading to President Trump voicing his support for the sport.

“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag — they said it loud and clear!” he tweeted.

However, popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted his opposition to the president’s comments on NFL players, saying “All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests.”

Fifty-one percent of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos poll said they do not support Mr. Kaepernick, 58 percent said athletes should be required to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and 43 percent said athletes should be barred from expressing political opinions during sporting events.

However, only 29 percent said NFL players who protest during the anthem should lose their jobs.

More than 150 people commented in response to a question on the Delaware State News’ Facebook page about the protests within 24 hours, with a majority expressing displeasure.
The flag

Dave Skocik, president of the Delaware Veterans Coalition, sees the protests by athletes as an insult to veterans.

The flag is a “sacred symbol” and not standing for the national anthem is “like peeing on a gravestone, in a sense,” he said.

The protests over racial inequality are unrelated to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the American flag, Mr. Skocik opined, noting he has no respect for “anything that they have to say about their beliefs when they disrespect the flag.”

But the president of the Central Delaware branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People believes the issues driving the protest must be confronted.

“In order for America to be great for the first time ever, folks have to learn to work together,” said La Mar Gunn. “We’re only going to do it as one.”

Mr. Gunn is planning a town hall with local elected officials and community leaders to address the controversy.

“We need leaders to not sit silent in times of tension like what we have now but come out and shine light on a dark road where most people don’t really know which direction to go in,” he said.

While he understands the decision to kneel, he said he would rather “stand and be eye to eye with people,” discussing problems and solutions.

Local black leaders, including Mr. Gunn, have worked with the Dover Police Department to improve the relationship between the agency and the minority community. Spurred in part by a 2015 indictment of a Dover officer who kicked a black suspect in the jaw (and was found not guilty of assault charges resulting from the incident), their efforts have helped create a connection between black Doverites and members of the Police Department, Mr. Gunn said.

But even if racial tensions have been reduced in Dover, they remain a major issue in the state and in the nation.

“It’s a fact that I have to worry about how my son looks when he’s driving,” Mr. Gunn said.

A native of Los Angeles, he said he witnessed police brutality firsthand growing up and has been pulled over while driving simply because of his race.

The central tenet of the protests during the anthem is opposition to and anger over law enforcement officers fatally shooting black civilians.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Mr. Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. “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.”

According to the Washington Post, 737 people have been shot and killed by police in 2017. One hundred sixty-six — or 22.5 percent — were black. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13.3 percent of the American population was black as of July 2016.

While some note blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites, others argue arrest statistics alone don‘t tell the whole story and context and racial prejudices must be considered as well.

“We can’t keep ignoring this,” Mr. Gunn said. “It’s just going to continue to get worse, and as we can see our folks from the top aren’t helping cool things.”

But disagreement over the method by protestors remains strong with many.

Athletes who don’t stand for the anthem are saying, essentially, “I hate the country,” Mr. Skocik said.

Fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. Dave Lawson agrees.

“Well, I think it’s totally disrespectful,” the Marydel Republican said. “Do they have the right do that? Sure, but I think it’s a slap in the face to our military and everyone else that has served and loves this country, and for them to use their celebrity stats to promote a disrespectful behavior is pretty poor.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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