As Sunday football approaches, many Americans won’t be focused on whether Tom Brady can improve his completion rate, or how many touchdowns Antonio Brown can score. Instead, they’ll be wondering whether President Donald Trump will continue his spat with football players over their decision to take a knee during the national anthem in a silent protest against racial injustice and police brutality.
Despite never having served himself — and getting five draft deferments from Vietnam — Trump has rapidly become an expert on all things military-related, including how best to respect veterans. Last Friday, for instance, he said he hoped any “son of a bitch” who knelt during the national anthem would be fired for not respecting the troops’ sacrifices.
But if there’s anybody more qualified to talk about veterans than Donald Trump, it’s veterans themselves.
While some veterans have come out opposing the protests, ThinkProgress talked to four who say they support the football players’ decision to kneel.
Despite serving different tours and in different branches at different times, the veterans who spoke to ThinkProgress were in agreement about one thing: The recent protests aren’t trying to disrespect the troops, but rather draw attention to systemic injustice in a way that will hopefully make the country better.
Amanda Blount, Army and National Guard veteran
One woman who knows about what it means to serve is Amanda Blount. A UNC football and Tennessee Titans fan, Blount spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Army and Tennessee National Guard, serving in Iraq, Panama, Egypt, and a host of other countries around the world. But Amanda says she never served for the flag, but rather the inalienable rights that the United States was built on.
“My personal position is that we fight for the Constitution,” she said. “I fight for people, I fight for civil rights, be it Iraq, Panama, or even a different state, that’s where the Constitution calls me.”
Amanda thinks the protests during the national anthem are justified because of the centuries of slavery and discrimination faced by African Americans. She also thinks Trump has woefully mismanaged his response to this activism.
“He doesn’t understand the role that he has as commander-in-chief,” she said. “He doesn’t understand his role isn’t just as a figurehead but also as someone tasked with bringing people together. He’s not just the CEO but the PR person as well, he has two hats on.”
“Taking a knee is not even his lane,” she added. “He’s micromanaging. It’s someone else’s job.”
Mansoor Shams, Marine veteran
Marine veteran, business owner and Baltimore Ravens fan Mansoor Shams doesn’t have a problem with protesters deciding to take a knee during the anthem.
“One of the reasons we put on the uniform is to exercise the democratic right to practice what you wish,” he said. “I don’t take offense because the parties in the NFL have clearly said this is about inequality and racism and not about the troops.”
“I think it’s more disrespectful to go up in a rally in Alabama and call people ‘sons of bitches,’” he added. “I think that’s far more disrespectful.”
Mansoor’s personal experience as a Muslim-American, and the Islamophobia that all-too-often accompanies it, means he’s well-placed to comment on America’s relationship with bigotry and white supremacy. But Mansoor also thinks that, in his fierce criticism of the protests, Trump may have inadvertently made them more popular.
“It started with one guy and now every game you have people kneeling,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the kneeling thing gets bigger with other sportsmen saying the same thing. Then what are you going to say?”
Glennis Carter, Army veteran
Many of the veterans who spoke to ThinkProgress criticized the co-option of veterans by the NFL — especially since, as many pointed out, the policy of players standing for the national anthem was only introduced in 2009 as a way to market military recruitment.
Glennis Carter, a veteran from Florida and Dallas Cowboys fan, put it succinctly. “It’s paid patriotism,” she said, pointing to the 2015 report by Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) that revealed that $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 to 2014 to put on “patriotic salutes” for the military.
“You have the federal government giving money to the NFL for all this pomp and ceremony for recruitment,” she said. “It’s a dog-and-pony show.”
She added that she thinks it’s ridiculous that the United States can pour money into getting young people to serve — partly through advertising at NFL games — but don’t have many resources for them when they are discharged.
“It’s so amazing we have all this money for military recruitment but when it comes to taking care of veterans we have no money at all,” she said. “It’s a problem, especially with continuous deployment. There’s never enough money for the VA, but there is for these dog-and-pony shows at games. It’s a misappropriation of funds.”
Carter doesn’t have a problem with football players kneeling, and pointed to the fact that football players taking the knee was a carbon copy of the mark of respect soldiers make for a fallen comrade, when they kneel in front of their rifle, boots and helmet.
“The protest is about saying no to injustice, inequality and police brutality,” she said. “When Kaepernick began it he wasn’t protesting the flag or the anthem, he was standing up for victims.”
In Glennis’ opinion, people would rather shy away from a frank conversation about race then have an open discussion about the role of white privilege in the country. “It’s very uncomfortable,” she said. “For a lot of people it’s not something that they want to discuss.”
Brandon Neely, Army veteran
Former Military Police Officer Brandon Neely, who served in Guantanamo and Iraq, thinks the controversy over the protests are masking the bigger problems facing veterans.
“People are upset about bending the knee but not about the VA, or a war based on lies,” he said. “You’re upset about people using their freedoms in the right way. Trump is just using it to get his base going.”
Brandon, who is also a Dallas Cowboys fan, said that he found it ridiculous that Trump retweeted an image of veteran Pat Tillman, who signed up in the wake of 9/11 despite his promising football career for the Arizona Cardinals.
“I followed him in college and had a lot of respect for him,” Brandon said. “He joined for the right reasons, but when he joined he became against the war in Iraq. He had a meeting set up with Noam Chomsky. They were just trying to use him. They had no clue what he stood for.”
Brandon also described Trump’s comments on the NFL as a “distraction tactic” to focus away from the latest Russia revelations or legislative failures.
***These veterans aren’t alone. A recent petition by the progressive group VoteVets has gathered over 15,000 signatures from veterans who support the protests. It would seem the president’s ideas about pride and patriotism are a lot less popular then he thinks.
“I’m an American. I love it and I enjoy it,” said Blount. “But I don’t like it when people bat me over the head with their patriotism. Pride is personal.”