The debate about whether football players should stand for the national anthem moved to the center of the national conversation last month. On Sunday, September 24, scores of National Football League players, knelt, sat or stayed in the locker room while the Star-Spangled Banner was played. What used to be a rote exercise that began all sports events suddenly became seen as an indicator of sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement or antipathy for President Donald J. Trump.
The most telling moment in the controversy, however, may have come a day later, when one NFL player felt compelled to apologize. The contrarian was not one of those allegedly protesting the nation's perceived shortcomings. It was, instead, a player who stood at attention and with his hand over his heart while the anthem was played.
Alejandro Villanueva was in the spotlight because he chose to stand and salute in sight of the fans -- and the television cameras -- at the entrance to the field while the rest of his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates stayed in their locker room. Within 24 hours, his number 78 Steelers jersey became the league's best-selling merchandise. Villanueva was apparently quickly shamed by his team into expressing regret.
In the aftermath of his public browbeating, it did not take much deep analysis for many Americans to see that the factor that separated Villanueva from his teammates was his military service.
A graduate of West Point and a veteran of three tours of service as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, Villanueva is an outlier not only in terms of the NFL, but also as far as most Americans are concerned.
Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to stand and salute in sight of fans during the playing of the national anthem on September 24 in Chicago, while the rest of his teammates stayed in their locker room. Villanueva was apparently quickly shamed by his team into expressing regret. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
According to the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Center, active service members make up only 0.4 percent of the population of the United States. Even more telling is that more than 44 years after the Selective Service effectively ended conscription, the percentage of veterans has plummeted. In 2015, it was reported that only 7.3% of Americans had served in the military at some point during their lives. With each passing year, as the last veterans of World War Two and Korea pass away and with even the youngest Vietnam-era service members entering their seventies, this percentage will decline. Most Americans know nothing of what the military's sacrifice entails and are apparently prone not to value what those who serve in the military are defending. Ironically, surveys show the military to be the most respected of contemporary American institutions.
At the same time, opinion surveys continue to show a decline in expressions of patriotism, such as pride in the values of America or in being American. That number reached a historic low in April of 2017 when Gallup reported that only 52% of respondents said they were "extremely proud" to be Americans.
Gallup's numbers showed Democrats and millennials polled on the question of how they felt about America were less likely to express pride in their country than Republicans or older Americans. As college students have been increasingly shielded from knowing positive values that America has brought to civilization, the resulting impact on the culture cannot be considered a surprise.
Of course, to some of those who refuse to stand for the anthem, kneeling is a public reproach to racism that still exists in the US as well as in many other societies, as well as a supposed expression of patriotism in accord with the American tradition of free speech, honoring dissent.
One does not have to be a veteran to love one's country or to embrace its symbols. Dissent, even in forms that are offensive to many, can also be declared expressions of democracy.
Moreover, Trump's demand that NFL owners players be fired -- they are not his to fire -- doubtless caused many players to join the protesters as a way of demonstrating their antipathy for an unpopular president rather than resentment toward police forces accused of targeting African-Americans for death (often without any basis in statistics or the facts of controversial cases, such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri).
The teaching of what used to be called civics or history has declined to the point where Americans know very little about their roots or how a republican form of government works. At the same time, public education in the post-Vietnam era, as well as textbooks often developed with the "help" of dubious sources (here, here, here and here) have also emphasized America's flaws while undermining the sense that it is a place worth defending.
As the sports world has gone from being a sector of the culture where patriotic gestures were transformed from universally accepted time-honored rituals to the occasion for leftist "virtue signaling," it is worth wondering if the battles over the anthem are more the natural outcome of a popular culture that no longer teaches Western values or requires either a draft or any kind of national service.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org a contributing writer for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.