Feinstein: Patriotism Goes Beyond Anthem

David Robinson, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick are patriots, John Feinstein says, regardless of the narrow view many have on the matter

John Feinstein
August 01, 2018 - 10:51 am

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Earlier this week, LeBron James returned to Akron—the town where he grew up—to announce the opening of a new school that he and his foundation will fund. The school will be primarily for kids from underprivileged families, kids growing up with one parent (as James did) or without parents at all.

It will, no doubt, have a huge impact on countless young lives.

James isn’t the first celebrity or even the first athlete to use his fame and finances to start a school. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf did it in Las Vegas; Magic Johnson has done it and David Robinson opened a school in San Antonio, his adopted hometown.

Reading about what James is doing, I couldn’t help but think about Laura Ingraham. It was Ingraham, you might remember who said that James should "shut up and dribble" after James had the audacity to criticize President Trump.

My thought was this: Thank goodness James hasn’t listened to the likes of Ingraham and others who want athletes to simply perform for them and then not have any opinions on issues.

From his own experiences, James knows that an athlete with his platform should do a lot more than shut up and dribble and he’s done that.

There’s more to it than that though. Even Laura Ingraham would be hard-pressed to find fault with what James is doing for under-privileged kids in Akron. But if James—hypothetically—decided to kneel for the national anthem somewhere, Ingraham and the President and millions of others would start screeching that James is un-patriotic; that he doesn’t respect the military or his country.

Let’s take this a step further. Michael Jordan once wrapped himself in an American flag—literally—in order to cover the logo of a corporation that wasn’t paying him to endorse its product.

This was at the 1992 Olympics and Jordan was part of the so-called "Dream Team" that flogged the rest of the world’s basketball teams to bring the gold medal back to the United States.

The United States Olympic Committee had made a deal with Reebok to put American athletes into sweat suits with a Reebok logo during medal ceremonies. Jordan, as everyone knows, has been paid millions (and millions) by Nike through the years. No way was he showing up for the medal ceremony wearing a Reebok logo.

Remember the last scene of the final Harry Potter movie when Voldemort simply evaporates, his body cracking and crumbling into nothingness after Harry takes control of the Elda wand? No doubt the same would have happened to Jordan if anyone had seen him in public with a Reebok logo.

So, he showed up for the medal ceremony with an American flag wrapped around him, hiding the Reebok logo. Then he stood at attention with his teammates during the national anthem.

A true patriot.

A few years later, when Dean Smith, Jordan’s college coach at North Carolina, asked him to campaign for Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who was running for the U.S. Senate against segregationist Jesse Helms, Jordan turned him down. According to legend, when Smith asked Jordan why he wouldn’t campaign for Gantt—the first African American to attend Clemson in the 1960s, who had gone on to get his master's degree at MIT—Jordan said, “Because Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

A true patriot.

The question, then, is this: what is a patriot? Certainly someone who serves in the armed forces should be considered a patriot because he or she has volunteered to die for our country if need be. My father served in the Pacific in World War II and received a bronze star after helping to save several men in his squad during a sniper attack on Saipan.

I remember going to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden when I was in junior high school and sitting in the blue seats next to three African Americans who didn’t stand for the national anthem. This was during the Vietnam War. When the anthem was over, I turned to the three men, who were passing a joint to one another, and asked them why they hadn’t stood during the anthem.

“Because that flag means nothing to us,” one of them said. “People running this country couldn’t care less about us.”

He then offered me a hit on his joint.

At dinner the next night, I told my dad what had happened.

“I can’t relate to that kind of anger,” he said. “But I can understand why someone who hasn’t been as fortunate as we are might feel that way.”

So, was my father not a patriot?

It seems as if many Americans now define patriotism as standing at attention for the national anthem, “toeing the line,” as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones put it recently.

Personally, I think true patriotism is going out of your way to try to make life better for other people in our country—whether they were born here or not.

David Robinson served in the Navy before his Hall-of-Fame career with the San Antonio Spurs. Because he was 7-foot-1, he was limited to working at a desk at a submarine base in King’s Bay, Georgia. I went down to see him during research for a book I was writing in 1988.

We went to lunch at a Burger King because there weren’t a lot of other options near the base.

David had just signed a contract with the Spurs for a reported $26 million. When he walked into the restaurant in his crisp white Navy uniform, the manager knew instantly who he was.

“You’re that guy from Navy who just signed that big contract,” he said, gaping up at David. “Tell you what, when you’re rich and famous, you come back here, I’ll give you your food for free.”

David shook his head and laughed. “When I’m rich and famous, I won’t need my food for free,” he said. “Right now I’m making $590 a month in the Navy. NOW, I could use free food.”

The guy didn’t get it. I paid for lunch.

Many athletes aspire to own Burger Kings when they become rich and famous. David aspired to open a school for underprivileged kids.

Many people in an San Antonio have urged Robinson to run for mayor. Several years ago, I asked him if he thought about it. “Nope,” he said. “I think I can do a lot more good if I don’t have to worry about getting people to vote for me.”

David Robinson is a patriot. I doubt Laura Ingraham would ever tell him to "shut up and dribble" because David’s not outspoken.

Does that mean he’s MORE of a patriot than LeBron James because he served in the Navy and doesn’t take political positions that might upset some people? Is he LESS patriotic because he hasn’t spoken out on issues like police brutality or the role of journalism in our country today?

I’d make the case that both men are patriots because they have gone out of their way to try to touch the lives of young people who need help.

I would also make the case that Colin Kaepernick is a patriot. He was willing to lose his job—a very lucrative job—because he believed the issue of police brutality needed to be discussed in a public forum. He succeeded—but lost his job in the process and became a reviled figure in many places.

Sadly, the issue that Kaepernick first raised has now been kidnapped and turned into a proving ground for patriotism. If you stand for the anthem and rebuke those who don’t, you are a patriot. If you don’t stand OR if you support the right of those who choose not to stand, you’re not a patriot.

I believe my father was a patriot. I believe David Robinson, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick are patriots.

I always stand for the playing of the anthem. I also have no problem with anyone who chooses not to stand. When they kneel or raise a fist, they are making a political statement. When I stand, I am making a political statement, too.

Am I more patriotic than they are? Or less?
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major,” spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected as one of the best books of 2017 by The Junior Literary Guild. His new novel, “The Prodigy,” set at the Masters will be published later this month.