An athlete is suddenly forced by outside circumstances into a moral dilemma. I’m sure the athlete harbors nostalgic sentiments going back to childhood when the game was just the game and playing it was a simple joy. But these are not simple times. These are times when our games are emblematic of larger and weightier social currents and the athletes who play them at the highest levels are some of our most serious public figures. There is no simple “playing the game.”
And so the athlete is faced with a choice. On the surface it is a simple one. Embrace the opportunity to play on the biggest stage while attaining a social status and financial affluence that would otherwise be impossible. But the opportunity comes with a cost. Not a financial cost. It’s more expensive than that. It comes with a cost to the conscience – a cost that sticks with a person longer than mere dollars and cents.
In order to accept the opportunity, the athlete must bend the knee (metaphorically of course!) to the flag of an institution with which the athlete harbors deep reservations. As an individual to whom beliefs are more important than money and as a public representative of a like-minded community, the athlete decides that to even passively participate in this celebration would be impossible. And so as a consequence of conscience, the athlete is denied the opportunity, and she is instead bathed with public scorn and criticism.
And yes, I said “she.” Most of us are familiar with the story of Colin Kaepernick, but there are some important similarities between his story and the story of Jaelene Hinkle. Ms. Hinkle doesn’t occupy a stage as large or as public as Kaepernick, but in 2017 she was given the opportunity to play on the biggest stage available for a woman’s soccer player. She was called up to the women’s national team in June of that year. After some thought, she refused the call-up. The reason was because she would be forced to compete under a flag that offended her conscience, but it wasn’t the flag of her nation. It was the rainbow flag. All national players must wear the colors of the rainbow flag during the month of June in celebration of Pride. As a Christian with strong beliefs in traditional/biblical sexuality, she felt that she could not in good conscience wear the rainbow flag. So she turned down the opportunity and has faced public chastisement as a result. You can read about her story here.
Do you agree with the decision she made? Why or why not? Do you feel the same way about her decision that you feel about Kaepernick’s? Why or why not?
Both of these situations bring to the mind questions about a host of issues: conscience, patriotism, protest, historically marginalized groups, power dynamics, the role of sport in culture, and flags. Yes, flags. Flags play a significant role in both stories. Kaepernick kneeling before the American flag (and during the Anthem) as a sign of protest and Hinkle refusing to don the rainbow flag as a sign of protest.
A flag – whether of a nation or of a tribe – can serve two purposes. It can be a rallying point. A flag can consolidate an otherwise diverse people together. A flag isn’t just a banner, it’s a tent that contains the ideals, guiding principles, shared past, and hoped-for future of a people. But a flag can also serve as a reminder of the imposition of power. When one flag is lowered and another is raised in its place over a battlement, it is serving both purposes simultaneously. To the victors, a rallying point. To the captors, a reminder that a new power is in control. The flag in this second case cannot be protested. It may only be submitted to. The battle has been fought, and you have lost. Your protest isn’t brave. It’s a betrayal. “Stand up and show respect, you pampered athlete.” “Wear the flag, you bigot.”
Some will object to me equivocating an American flag and a rainbow flag. I recognize that there are some important differences, but in our current cultural discourse they have a similar function. I also recognize that there are different, often complex, beliefs about the worthiness of these protests. In the case of Kaepernick and the NFL, the issue has become almost hopelessly clouded. What cannot be denied, however, is that in the experience of both Kaepernick and Hinkle a flag has come to represent not a rallying point but an imposition of authority to which they have been told to be silent and submit. Regardless of opinions on the reasons for their protest, it seems like good people should at least be willing to recognize the bravery of it.
Oliver O’Donovan said, “The contentious individual speaks with society’s own forgotten voice.” The protests of people like Kaepernick may remind us (perhaps uncomfortably) of those higher principles that should guide and direct the nation that the flag represents. Kaepernick might help to start a conversation about what is “in the tent” so to speak. Those who would bully the “rich athlete” (as if being rich or an athlete disqualifies you from having a conscience) into conformity are actually emptying the flag of the very principles it is meant to represent. The protests of people like Hinkle may remind us that “diversity” and “inclusiveness” are mere buzzwords emptied of meaning if they exclude those who have different beliefs and that your pride becomes shame when it comes at the cost of humiliating others.
I guess what I find especially troubling is Christians, whose ultimate allegiance should be to the Lord, protesting the protest of people like Kaepernick or Hinkle (or more recently, bakers in Colorado and florists in Washington). I’ve heard Christians argue passionately for standing during the anthem and then grumble about standing too much during worship. I’ve also heard Christians argue passionately that hate is the only thing that would motivate a Christian baker to turn down the opportunity to bake a cake for a gay wedding. But if we have bowed our collective knees to Jesus, that must mean that every other allegiance must find itself subject to and judged by that primary commitment to the lordship of Jesus. My allegiances are all chastened and contingent. If I cannot imagine any circumstance where I would have to say “no” to celebrating a flag – whether that flag is my national flag or the flag of some tribal identity – I’ve got to wonder if my allegiances need serious re-calibration.