WASHINGTON

As the COVID-19 lockdowns wind down, many fans who long for the return of sports are dreading the return of anthem protests.

In response to the brutal killing of George Floyd in police custody, some athletes, coaches and league officials have apologized for their earlier opposition to such protests. Incredibly, the U.S. Soccer Federation has even repealed its rule requiring all players on the national team to stand during the national anthem. They were right the first time.

Should athletes be allowed to use their platforms to protest racism? Absolutely. Soccer player Weston McKennie recently wore an armband with the message “Justice for George” during a professional match in Germany. God bless him. If sports leagues want to have a moment of silence and allow players to take a knee before the anthem, then by all means they should do so.

But let’s be clear: The anthem and the flag symbolize the ideal of equality that America stands for, not those who failed to live up to those ideals. If you take a knee during the national anthem, you are not protesting racism in your country, you are protesting your country. There is a difference. You are not objecting to an evil that exists in America; you are saying America is evil. You are not saying we still have a long way to go in our journey toward full equality. You are saying that this country—where majorities twice voted to elect a black president—is fundamentally racist. And you are saying that the American flag and the American military are symbols of oppression.

Doubt it? Ask Colin Kaepernick, the man who launched the anthem protests, what he is protesting. Last year, he forced Nike to recall a flag-themed shoe because, the Wall Street Journal reported, it was “an offensive symbol.” He also accused the U.S. military of “terrorist attacks against Black and Brown people for the expansion of American imperialism” and tweeted that “America militarism is the weapon wielded by American imperialism, to enforce its policing and plundering of the non white world.” Do you agree? Then take a knee. But don’t say that you are not protesting our flag or our military when you do.

If you want to protest the flag as a symbol of oppression, you are free to do so—because this is a free country. But don’t be surprised if millions of good and decent Americans take offense at your gesture. Many of them fought for that flag, or saw loved ones die or suffer grievous injury carrying it into battle. They beat back the evils of Nazism, communism and terrorism, and liberated tens of millions from death camps and gulags and unspeakable tyranny. Their sacrifice is the reason you have the freedom to express your opinions. When you disrespect the flag, you disrespect them.

It’s one thing for pro athletes to do this, but quite another for members of Team USA. Playing for your country is a privilege, not a right. You should not be allowed to wear the stars and stripes while dishonoring the Stars and Stripes at the same time. Players who insist on doing so want to have it both ways: They want to be able to disrespect their country and play for it, too. The irony is that they are protesting against men and women who sacrificed their lives to uphold their principles, yet they are unwilling to sacrifice the opportunity to play a game. If you cannot stand for your country’s anthem, then don’t put on your country’s uniform.

Unfortunately, as sporting events resume, it seems anthem protests will not just be allowed, they will be compulsory—and dissent is not permitted. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently spoke for millions when he said, “I love and respect my teammates, and I stand right there with them in regard to fighting for racial equality and justice,” but “I also stand with my grandfathers, who risked their lives for this country, and countless other military men and women who do it on a daily basis.” A woke mob descended on him and forced him to apologize. One teammate told him to “shut the f—- up.” So much for freedom of speech.

America is far from perfect. But for all our flaws, we are the only country in human history that was built on an idea—the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. We have not always lived up to that ideal. But the American flag represents the ideal, not those who fall short of it. And it represents the sacrifice of courageous men and women who fought and died to preserve its promise for all Americans. Find a way to honor George Floyd without dishonoring them.

Marc A. Thiessen writes for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

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