It’s concerning to watch the trend among football players who feel it’s appropriate to take a knee in protest when our National Anthem is played before their sporting events. This week I was discouraged to see in the news that a few high school football players in my city decided to follow the example of the athletes they look up to.
I’ll be the first to defend their right to do this. Many of my friends, relatives and I spent careers and beyond sacrificing so that they could have that right.
I’m not even concerned about the slap in the face that these protests represent to those who defended these so-called “professional” athletes’ freedom. The warriors who fought for those rights can take the slap in the face.
But I wouldn’t blame these athletes’ bosses for exercising their freedom to fire them for demonstrating toxic leadership and pathetic sportsmanship. And I wouldn’t blame their fans for exercising their freedom to find a different team to support that models character, sportsmanship, and courageous leadership.
For 26 years, I put on my own team’s uniform and stepped onto the field in the company of heroes. We stood at attention and saluted our flag with pride. We weren’t naive about the problems in our country, and they were many. And we didn’t always agree with our country’s policies. Why did we do this? Because our country needs leaders who will defend what’s good, leaders who unify rather than divide, leaders who model for others what is admirable. We didn’t think about how we could bring attention to ourselves. We asked how we could unify and encourage our team, and make our families proud of us. That’s what great leaders do.
I understand that these athletes believe they are creating awareness of an important problem in our country. But they are actually drawing more attention to themselves than to a cause, exactly the opposite of what a sportsman should be focused on before a game.
Awareness of the problems in our country is not what is lacking. We all know that the problem of a few bad apples in the police force is one piece of a very complex problem in our country. But the same could be said for some bad apples in the Air Force and in the NFL. The problem is a lack of personal responsibility for modeling the character we want to see in others. And taking a knee in disrespect for our country is not helping anyone. To leaders who choose disrespect as their solution, I ask: Is this really the way you want to lead the young people who look up to you? Do you really want to be remembered for your role in chipping away at the already eroding unity we’re experiencing in this country?
OK, that was a lot of challenge. Let me offer some encouragement. Great leaders wake up in the morning asking how they can help others today, how they can unify and encourage their teams and those who look up to them, and how they can model the good they want to see in others.
In contrast to passive aggressive, toxic leadership behavior, check out this news story about a Michigan high school football team who suited up their water boy who has Down Syndrome and set him up to score a touchdown during their game. (Caution: It may choke you up.)
Jay Pullins is the founder and owner of Anchorage-based Catapult Leadership Solutions, providing expertise in developing the character and competency of leaders in all sectors. He is also a leadership course facilitator for Academy Leadership, LLC.