Our Opinion: Locked arms and open hearts

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One of the unintended consequences of President Trump's recent divisive attack on protesting NFL players is that he has prompted many Americans to engage in a pursuit that would delight the framers of the U.S. Constitution: that is to say, wholesale self-reflection regarding their rights as citizens. We saw this take dramatic form on Thursday evening in Springfield when football teams from Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton and the host Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy met on the field for the national anthem ("Wahconah, Putnam football players team up for unity," The Eagle, Sept. 29).

Before the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the teams formed two lines across each 40-yard line, each line consisting of alternating team members. As a color guard marched to the 20-yard line, the teams locked arms and the national anthem began. Wahconah's coach, Gary Campbell Jr., said the teams wished to show that football is a unifying sport and uniting was a perfect way to honor America.

"We're all from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different geographical backgrounds," he said. "Plain and simple, because of those differences we stood together. That's what the Stars and Stripes mean and that's where we've got to get. ... They were excited to do this. They were proud to stand up for the flag and stand up for everything that we did today."

If you're just tuning in, the players were responding to President Trump's words at a political rally on September 22, when he declared out of the blue that NFL team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem. Trump said NFL owners should respond to the players by saying, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired. He's fired!" NFL players and owners across the league promptly responded by kneeling and/or locking arms during the national anthem during that weekend's games, a gesture intended to tell President Trump that they were united in their disgust with his vulgar criticism of athletes exercising their right to peacefully protest the treatment of minorities in this country.

Of course kneeling during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" carries a message with far greater weight beyond the pointed retort to a clueless and ill-behaved commander-in-chief. When San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the practice a year ago, he was motivated by oppression of people of color, particularly with the death of unarmed black men gunned down by police. His peaceful protest arose from the depths of a very American and patriotic yearning for the freedom and justice proclaimed and promised under the Constitution — the subtlety of which escapes our president and too many of his supporters.

These protests are not an attack on the military but an exercising of the constitutional rights our military has fought to defend. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning the flag constituted symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Seen against that type of protest, taking a knee is both tame and quite respectful.

We applaud our young local football players for their initiative and idealism. In locking arms the other night, the players "were just trying to show that no matter what, this nation is together," said Wahconah senior Dane Campbell. They've proven themselves more mature, more aligned with the American spirit than some of our nation's supposedly adult leaders.


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