Commentary

Nate Boyer: Let’s finish strong, America

DISCLAIMER: I only speak for myself, not the military, not the veteran community, and not the Army Special Forces. “I have great respect for the men and women that fought for this country,” and these are simply my opinions and feelings, based on my values and experiences. However, feel free to virtually crucify me — as if you needed my permission.

Dear United States of America,

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” - Socrates

That quote has been in my Twitter bio for as long as I can remember. No, I didn’t know him, but I’m pretty sure Socrates was a smart guy, and it sounds like he might have been humble too. Weird. Socrates served in the military, and from my limited research led a really complicated life, much of which he was criticized for. He also may have even opposed democracy, which seems to be one of the factors leading to his eventual execution. That being said, if I had known him, I probably wouldn’t be onboard with all things Socrates. But, I do love that quote. I didn’t plan on writing about Socrates, and it sounds like he wouldn’t want that anyway. In this current social climate, I will undoubtedly be virtually executed by somebody for quoting him, so please, allow me to preemptively apologize. With the “cancel culture” we’re currently navigating, or tiptoeing I should say, my days are surely numbered. But, I digress, which I will do throughout this… manifesto? Or whatever this piece of word vomit is. Anyway, to me, that quote pretty much sums up the first half of 2020. A metric s*** ton of unknowns. What will life look like on the other side of Covid-19? Who will be elected President in November? And perhaps the most important question of all: WILL THERE BE A 2020 NFL SEASON?! I’m not getting into the weeds on coronavirus, or protests over the death of George Floyd, or the litany of challenges we’ve already faced in 2020. We were there, we know what happened, right? Well, we better know anyway, after how much it’s all been politicized. Regardless, I genuinely just don’t wanna write about that either.

I’d rather talk about the second half. This year, the way I see it, Fourth of July is America’s “halftime” for the 2020 season — and boy was the first half a kick in the balls. Ouch. But, without pain there is no growth. When you workout in the gym you are literally tearing your muscles, and the only way they are able to grow is through recovery, and healing. Maybe that’s what’s happening now (or about to happen, anyway)? There seems to be a lot of growth going on around the country amidst all the tragedy, anger, and division. For instance, we kinda sorta finally recognized June 19th as a national holiday, maybe 150 or so years too late, but important nonetheless. There’s a lot of people that feel like Juneteenth is as important as the Independence Day that we’ve celebrated for almost 240 years. Some of those people even feel that it’s more important, and guess what, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unpatriotic. Fourth of July is important too though, at least to me. And at this point, despite my personal connection to Old Glory, it would be quite challenging for anyone to convince me that the American flag is just a “piece of cloth.”

Try telling a Christian that a cross is just a piece of wood: whether one hangs on a rearview mirror, one is burned in an effort to intimidate others, or Jesus was crucified on one; the cross, much like the flag, is a powerful symbol. And so, here we are; you knew it was coming — the part of this peaceful rant (that is definitely all over the place) where we talk about the national anthem. Almost four years ago I penned my first open letter via the Army Times to Colin Kaepernick (that one was a little all over the place too). It was after he had been sitting on the bench during the anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality. When a reporter asked him why he wouldn’t stand to honor America he said, “I’m not going to stand for the flag of a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

That was all I initially heard from the 18-minute interview Colin gave from the San Francisco 49ers locker room, and I encourage anyone who has a strong opinion on this to spend 18 minutes listening to the man speak. You might not like what he has to say, it may not change how you feel about him or the situation at all, but please, swallow your pride, shut your mouth, and just listen for 18 minutes. I was guilty of not doing those things either, at first. I made a decision based on that one sentence about who Colin Kaepernick was; based on a headline, on one soundbite. Do I agree with everything he has said, done, and even worn? Nope, I disagree with a lot of it. I do believe, however, that we live in the greatest country in the world, but we can always do better; show me the person who you fully agree with on every single fundamental thing and I’ll show you a liar. Who knows, I could be wrong; I’ve only been wrong, oh, a few hundred thousand times in my life. Point is, take 18 minutes and just listen, like he listened to me.

Colin was inspired to reach out to me after reading my letter, even though (in full transparency) I still hadn’t listened to his 18-minute interview. He wanted to meet face-to-face and have a conversation without the media present. It wasn’t intended to be a publicity stunt and I appreciated that. We sat in the lobby of the team hotel in San Diego before the 49ers played their final preseason game of 2016 against the Chargers. It was military appreciation night with 9/11 approaching, there was a flyover scheduled, Navy SEALS were skydiving into the stadium, and an African American Navy petty officer, Steven Powell, was slated to sing the national anthem... in a major “military” city.

I was nervous; Colin was nervous. The meeting started off awkward until the ice was broken. I don’t remember exactly what was said to break it, or who said it, but it was something along the lines of, “Well, this s*** really blew the f*** up.”

We laughed at the attempt at dark humor, as two guys would, whether they were in an NFL locker room or a Green Beret team room. As Keanu Reeves would say in the award winning film “Speed,” “I’m not a cop right now, see? We’re just two cool guys, just hangin’ out.” Seriously though, that was the actual mood of the conversation. Loads of levity, which is desperately needed in America today. Eric Reid joined us as well, he would protest that night alongside Colin, and has continued to demonstrate while playing in the NFL for the last three seasons.

So, we talked, we laughed, we shot the proverbial breeze, but most importantly we listened. At the end of the conversation, Colin point blank asked me, “Do you think there’s another way I can protest that won’t offend people in the military?”

I chuckled and told him, “No. Bro, we’re all over the map with our opinions and feelings about stuff like this. We’re not all of one particular political affiliation, in fact we’re probably the most diverse microcosm in the country. No matter what you do, some people are just gonna be offended, and they have every right to feel that way.”

He chewed on this and then asked, “What do you think I should do?” A hot flash instantly rushed through my entire body and I broke into a sweat. Oh man, did he really just ask me that? When I’m nervous, one of my defense mechanisms is to make a joke, rarely are they actually funny. “I think you should stand with your hand on your heart.” Colin smiled, “Haha, nice try. But for real, I’m committed to not standing until things start to change.” That made sense. I wasn’t necessarily onboard with the method, but I respected his right to do so. Anyone who joins the United States armed forced takes an oath to defend the Constitution, which includes the First Amendment. Every American, of course, has the right to agree or disagree with the choice to protest during the anthem. Despite Colin’s intent, many may perceive it as a sign of disrespect, but in my opinion we should all respect the First Amendment; it’s what we in the military fought for and what many Americans died for, their caskets often draped in American flags.

I then had a thought, one that I will no doubt be judged for until the end of time, the end of my time here on earth anyway. I told him, “Well, to me the most important thing is that you’re alongside your teammates, whatever you do. I personally think that’s symbolic of what America’s supposed to be all about. Not everyone on that sideline agrees with you on everything, but y’all put that stuff aside and work together towards a common goal, in this case winning a football game.”

Colin was locked in, listening intently. I continued, “If you’re committed to not standing then I think the only other option that’s not gonna look absolutely ridiculous, is to take a knee. And it just so happens that taking a knee is universally recognized as a respectful gesture. People take a knee to pray, propose to their future spouse, and when a player is hurt on the field what do y’all do? You take a knee out of respect until the player is carried off. Hell, when I go to Arlington to visit my buddy Brad, I take a knee at his headstone to pay respects.” He replied, “Wow. I think that’s powerful.” Let me just reiterate that the suggestion to kneel was not premeditated. Did I know he was going to ask me that question? NO! In fact, never in a million years would I imagine that question would come up during our conversation. But, it did, and I answered it as best I could in the moment.

And so, Colin agreed to kneel that night during the anthem and I agreed to stand next to him. Just two cool guys, hanging out. Seriously though, two dudes that don’t agree on everything, with different opinions, feelings, and values based on their very different experiences, willing to share some common ground for two minutes. As I look back at photos of it now, I can see how nervous I was. In some images my right hand was on my heart, while my left hand was in my pocket, a big no-no for a veteran and a subtle nod to another nervous defense mechanism. Sadly, what stood out to me from that moment was the booing, that’s what I mostly remember. It was intense, and to me it was a hell of a lot more disrespectful than someone “standing at half mast.”

Fast forward to today, in the middle of another election year, and we’re back to debating taking a knee. Shocker. Only this time it’s all of the sudden exceedingly more comfortable to have these “uncomfortable conversations.” Or is it? With this whole “cancel culture,” we are also trending dangerously toward living in an eggshell environment where people (especially white people) are afraid to have real conversations with people of color because they don’t want to take a misstep and crush all the eggs.

The good thing about a locker room or a team room is that we routinely trample field after field of eggshells, and it brings us closer together. I miss that a lot, maybe more than anything, because eggshells friggin’ stink. Almost every organization and corporation in America released a statement over the last several weeks denouncing racism, which is great, right? I mean, of course everyone should denounce racism. But my fear is that most of them did so out of pure obligation, because they feared that if they didn’t do so, they’d be considered racist.

The #ITakeResponsibility campaign felt like a testament to this. I’m sure it was well intended, but what did these celebrities actually hope to accomplish? Anyway, I’m gonna go off the rails if I continue down that track. Back to football, kinda sorta.

If we do, in fact, have an NFL season in 2020, I’m pretty sure I know that there will be an unprecedented number of players kneeling during the national anthem — even though, “I know nothing at all.” Some Black, some white, but all individual human beings with their own set of opinions, feelings, and values based on their very different experiences. Do I wish they would all stand for “The Star Spangled Banner?” Of course. I wish that they felt the same sense of pride that I do when that song plays. But right now, some of them just don’t… and that’s OK. I have thick skin, I can handle it. What I’m more frustrated about are people that do things socially or politically, purely out of obligation and I’m gonna work my butt off to try and make this country better until everyone feels the same sense of pride that I do. To me, that’s what the hell the United States of America is supposed to be all about. A bunch of dudes and dudettes on “a sideline,” ready to “play a game,” shoulder to shoulder with different ideas “trying to win” together. Ironically, some players standing alongside other players kneeling will be viewed by certain people as a symbol of unity. Oh, and one last thing: just because an NFL player stands with his hand on his heart when the anthem plays, that doesn’t mean they believe “Black Lives Don’t Matter” and just because an NFL player takes a knee during the anthem, that doesn’t mean they believe “All Cops Are Bad.” That is exactly the type of narrow-minded ignorance that maybe, we should all hate equally.

As I said long before this ramble kicked into high gear, the way I see it, it’s halftime America. We’re down big, almost everything that could have gone wrong in the first half, did. However, like every coach you’ve ever had says, “It’s not how you start — it’s how you finish!” So let’s regroup. Let’s refocus. Let’s get back out there (with a face mask and a 6-foot bubble) and #Let’sTakeResponsibility for what we choose to put out into the universe, for the way we treat our neighbors, for the respect we give to our fellow Man on the Left and Right — Black or White. But, what do I know?

“I know a whole lotta nothing, and that much I know for damn sure.” - Boyer

De Oppresso Liber

Nate Boyer is a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran and former football player for the University of Texas Longhorns and Seattle Seahawks. He is the co-founder of Merging Vets & Players (MVP) which teams up combat vets and former professional athletes to tackle the transition together. Nate also produces and hosts the NFL show: INDIVISIBLE, featuring players and community leaders across America, discussing issues relevant to their cities, and how they unite through football to solve those problems.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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