On Friday, September 22, 2017, the President of the United States fired up his base of supporters by calling out professional athletes who have expressed their 1st Amendment right of free speech and expression by taking a knee or sitting during the playing of the National Anthem. Ever since San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee to demonstrate the treatment of of African-Americans in our nation, there has been impassioned debate about freedom of expression and speech guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States versus respect for the flag of a nation that men and women have died fighting to defend.
This is not the first time such protest has taken place. As a young boy I remember when John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists in a black glove on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics as a protest for civil rights in 1968. I remember protesters burning the flag in the streets at the height of the Vietnam War. In both instances my father was outraged by those acts. When it comes to the symbols of our great nation, emotions are very strong, and when there are instances when two different parts of the Constitution are pitted against each other, it becomes difficult if not impossible to draw black and white conclusions. What a person often hears in this debate are statements about “respecting the flag,” many of them connected with respect for members of the armed forces. Many Americans share this belief, I among them. However, after the most recent flare up of attention to this issue, I sought to find out more about what determines what is respectful and what is not, and I found a source. The United States Code Title 36 Chapter 10 outlines among other things how citizens shall behave during the playing of the national anthem and show respect for the flag. You can do a search online and find this for yourself, and compared to many government documents, this one is pretty easy to understand.
We all learned at a very young age that when the National Anthem is played, or when we are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we are to stand at attention, face the flag, and place our right hand over our heart. That is stated specifically in the code. In addition, it is stated that if a flag is not present, we are to do the same and face toward the music and act in the same manner as if the flag was present. When the flag passes in front of us, such as in a parade, we are to stand with our right hands over our heart, according to the code. And obviously, in all of the above situations, men are to remove their headdress.
Very few times have I seen people acting disrespectful toward the flag, and most often it has been young kids at public events. It does bother me when I see them behaving in a disrespectful manner, and when I am close enough to them, I draw attention to what they are supposed to do. We all seem to have internalized that we are supposed to do in the circumstances identified above. However, in my research, there are a number things that many of us do that according to the code are just as disrespectful as not standing or turning our back on the flag, and I am sure that most people are not even aware of them.
Perhaps the most violated of the standards in the code that we have all witnessed, and perhaps a few of us have done, is to use the flag “as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.” Personally, I have not done that as I have been aware of this for a long time. However, I have family members that have worn flag apparel for years, especially on the Fourth of July. In their mind, they are being patriotic, as I am sure most people believe. But it is not. The code says that the flag should “never” be used in that manner! The strongest memory I have that reinforced this was when I was a small boy living in Ames, Iowa while my dad attended Iowa State University working on his graduate degree. We were at the Veishea parade and in the middle of the parade was a large number of anti-war protesters. One of them had the flag sewn on the hind-end of his jeans. An older gentleman near me was very agitated by that and yelled loudly at this person about the flag being "on his ass.” This gentleman was very upset, and when the marcher heard him, he flipped him off. That made an incredible impression on a second-grader that I have never forgotten and is the reason why I have never worn a flag as apparel. I have to admit that I was uncomfortable when our student section had “America Night” as a theme at a recent volleyball game because some of them were wearing flag apparel. It just doesn’t sit well with me because from my perspective, it is disrespectful.
I have participated in an act that disrespected the flag, and admit that I was not aware of it until I came across this part of the code: “the flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.” Three times I have part of over two-hundred people, most of them high school marching band members from southwest Iowa, who held a 100-yard long American flag horizontal about five feet above the surface of the football field at the Fiesta Bowl. As I reflect on this each time we were there to do this, the owners of the flag always told us the history of this huge flag and why their father made it and was determined to display it at events similar to this football game. While I do not remember specific details of the story, I do know that it was because of a strong sense of patriotism that he did this. I guess that now I find it a bit ironic that a gentleman that put such effort and pride into this would not have known that holding it in a horizontal, flat position was not a respectful way to display it. Most recently, while watching our TigerHawks play football at Waukon, a group of people did the same thing with a significantly smaller flag. They carried it horizontal to the group onto the field for the National Anthem, and then off in the same manner. Of course they thought they were being patriotic and respectful, but they were not.
Here are a couple of other disrespectful ways that people use the flag, most likely not being aware. “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.” How many picnics have you been to when the plates and napkins have had the flag on them? "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.” How about those baseball uniforms that have a flag patch sewn on the sleeve? How about stickers on football helmets that have the flag embossed inside a school logo? Those two are considered to be disrespectful to the flag. As is the adornment to a pickup truck I saw the other morning at Casey’s with that ripped or torn look along the side of it and the stars and stripes being shown.
There are other examples of common day-to-day occurrences that most of us are not aware of when a lack of respect is shown to our flag. Some may wonder that since there is a code, are their consequences? The code is a guide of how to handle and display the Stars and Stripes. Penalties are left to the states, and each one has its own flag law. I do not know what the laws are in the State of Iowa, but would guess that we do have them. Regardless, as stated earlier, most of us are very much aware of the expectations for those instances when most of us are in front of our nation’s flag, but most likely totally unaware of some of the disrespectful things that are done every day.
This brings me to my final point. It is a fact that nearly everyone is aware of expected decorum when we are at a sporting event, the flag appears, and the National Anthem is played, and that is why I believe so many people are offended when some of our sports heroes take a knee or raise a fist. It is a violation of what we know and expect. Perhaps we should be equally upset with the people with stars and stripes bikinis and t-shirts, as well as the family at their reunion on the 4th of July who use flag table clothes and cups. Most of us won’t because we view this people as being patriotic, even though by the code, they are not. Perhaps we should save some of our disgust for those who kneel, and remind others when they too are disrespectful by their actions.