Patriotism or bigotry? The Gospel According to Jerry

Jerry Sternberg


Recently a friend said to me, “Why don’t you write about this damn ‘kneeling’?” Of course he was talking about the protest movement started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial injustice.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an issue that has incensed older white men more than this one. “What in the hell do these Black millionaires want?” these white guys seem to believe. “They’re all rich, so what is their beef?”

Well, let’s start with these men of color themselves, who have extraordinary skills and have undergone years of rigorous training. They endure great physical trauma, and many pay for their participation in the sport with debilitating health issues in their later years.

For the most part, they are college graduates with excellent minds who, like their white counterparts, have been taught to think for themselves. They’ve decided that it’s their responsibility to use their celebrity to demand the respect that both they and their less powerful, less visible peers are rightfully entitled to as full and equal citizens of this great country.

They fully understand that if Kaepernick — or, for that matter, Black Mountain native Brad Daugherty, a five-time NBA All-Star — walked through North Asheville or Biltmore Forest wearing shabby clothes, the 911 center would light up like a pinball machine. Meanwhile, both the Asheville and Buncombe County schools have affirmed local athletes’ right to take the knee as a form of silent expression, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the event or the school day.

How would you feel?

The Rev. Micheal Woods, the very dedicated director of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, told me about a painful experience he had several years ago that graphically illustrates the problem. Woods, who is African American, liked to personally deliver small gifts at Christmastime to express his gratitude to local donors who’d supported the shelter.

One of them lived in Biltmore Forest, and as soon as Woods crossed the town boundary, the police began following him. When he stopped at the donor’s house, the police questioned him as to his business there. The homeowner had to verify that Woods’ presence wasn’t a threat.

Critics of kneeling say it’s unpatriotic and disrespects our flag. Yet kneeling is considered an appropriate form of worship in many religions, and soldiers kneel at the graves of fallen comrades to honor them. For these athletes, kneeling is a peaceful way to protest the racial injustice that people of color are still routinely subjected to.

After many years of grinding racism, Jim Crow has been voted out, but in its place we now have Jim Canary. The appearance may be a bit less offensive, and the birdsong has been replaced by a dog whistle, but how much has the underlying reality really changed?

Money doesn’t buy silence

These self-righteous critics seem to think that standing up at McCormick Field with their right hand on their heart while their left hand holds their beer makes them patriots. After mumbling however many words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” they actually know, they shout “Play Ball!!!” before the last note has even been sung, smiling as smugly as if they had just done their penance.

They are gravely mistaken, however.

The real patriots are our firefighters, police officers and lifesaving medical personnel. They’re the volunteers who work with kids in Little League or help youngsters who fall behind in the local schools; the donors who support our many worthy charities; the people who seek help for the homeless, who deliver meals to our elderly — and, of course, our active-duty service members and veterans who have sacrificed for our country.

True patriots are people who give of themselves and their resources to make life better for all Americans. You cannot practice racism and bigotry and still call yourself a “patriot.”

I’m beginning to wonder whether all this anger is less about a perceived lack of patriotism than it is about a sense of blasphemy against the “God of Sports.” The argument seems to be that because these athletes have become rich and famous through sports, they should be eternally grateful for that opportunity and do their protesting someplace else. In a 2017 rant, our president even called on the team owners to fire any player who dared to protest.

These jobs aren’t handed out as acts of charity, however: They are won through extraordinary hard work and sacrifice. The allegedly unpatriotic players earned their way to the top, and along the way they’ve made millions of dollars for team owners, coaches, trainers and advertisers while entertaining countless grateful fans.

Patriotic protest

I am sure those of you who are old enough will remember the June 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed student-initiated prayers before athletic games in publicly supported schools. A large segment of the Christian population was outraged, staging protests on school grounds all over the country.

Here in Asheville, “We Still Pray,” perhaps the biggest public protest in the city’s history, took place that August at Reynolds High School, spearheaded by my friend the Rev. Ralph Sexton. It backed up traffic on the interstates for miles, inconveniencing innumerable travelers who had nothing whatsoever to do with the demonstration.

Even though these protesters were decrying a ruling of the duly appointed Supreme Court, no one called them unpatriotic. And while I agreed with the court’s position, I believe those folks had every right, under the First Amendment, to protest it and work for constitutional change.

The protests by athletes have now spread nationwide. “Kneeling” has become common at sporting events as an effective way to call attention to racial inequality. Meanwhile, more young Black men have been shot — and the protests have rippled through other pro sports, even disrupting the NBA playoffs.

Increasingly, committed athletes are heeding the words of Rep. John Lewis, our beloved, recently departed lawmaker who was physically punished, jailed and vilified many times for taking part in protests seeking racial equity.

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just,” he told us, “you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at



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One thought on “Patriotism or bigotry? The Gospel According to Jerry

  1. luther blissett

    Always a pleasure to read Jerry, who has a knack of getting below the surface of things.

    I caught the end of the Stanley Cup final last night. Hockey is the only big team sport in the US where a player lifts the trophy first and not the team owner. Maybe that’s the Canadian influence; maybe team owners are just unsteady on skates. But there’s less of a sense that the players are themselves owned. Draw your own conclusions.

    We attach a lot of things to professional sports: not just patriotic displays, but awareness campaigns, sponsor obligations, etc. We expect athletes to be role models, especially to the communities they come from, but the standards we set are fuzzy. There’s an implicit status division between certain individual and team sports: golfers and tennis players are more like self-employed professionals; top-tier team players are high-wage, high-skill, high-risk (unionized) labor. That’s before we start thinking about college athletes or the pittance paid to the kids starting their baseball careers with the Tourists.

    The framing we demand tells us more about ourselves than those on the field of play.

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