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IDEMA: Football, our misplaced priorities and freedom of expression

• Oct 18, 2017 at 1:00 PM

I turned on my TV at lunch time today (Sept. 25 when I wrote this column) to find out something about the health care debate or our options in the North Korean crisis or what the Republicans wanted in the way of tax reform. All I could find on all the news cable channels was an unending debate about whether pro football players should always stand for our national anthem, and if they choose to kneel or stand in locked arms, what was the message of that. The president accused the protesters of being unpatriotic and disrespectful to our military and our flag. He said these players should be fired.

Wait a minute, Mr. President. This form of protest has nothing to do with patriotism or the military or the flag. It began, and continues to be, a protest against black people being — in the eyes of the protesters — brutalized and killed by the police.

Mark Twain said in a speech on May 14, 1908, that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest." He also wrote something to the effect that a patriot loves and supports one's country all the time and our government when it deserves it.

President Trump, in my view, made a mistake by bringing patriotism into the debate. These protesting football players love and support America, but are critical of aspects of our governments and their police forces. In our understanding of love of country, we must separate that love from our analysis of government on all levels.

The First Amendment gives of us freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and that includes kneeling in prayer or just kneeling during the national anthem.

What I find more disturbing than whether a football player kneels or stands at the beginning of a football game when our national anthem is played is the air time about this. Our obsession with football is way out of whack when you consider real life-and-death issues such as our recent hurricanes and how they have affected thousands of lives. I could not find any mention of that today in the midst of this whirlwind about protesting football players. Does this debate and even the sport itself deserve the amount of air time and emotional investment it receives as compared to much more important moral issues facing our society?

Let's examine a moral issue that is directly related to football itself which is getting little air time and one you will never hear discussed by the game-day pundits on a Saturday or Sunday, and that is the brain damage which results from repeated blows to the head, especially CTE (see the movie "Concussion").

Put a piece of meat, say a liver, in a jar of water. Then shake it. That is what happens when the brain rattles around inside the skull with each hit. Plus, the skull is not smooth around the brain but has protrusions that hurt the brain tissue.

I am glad I had daughters who cheered at games rather than playing them. How can our college and high school administrators justify sponsoring a sport which causes brain damage? The rebuttal is that we do not know what percentage of players will have permanent brain damage. So, our schools are willing to play Russian roulette with young people when the purpose of education is brain development, not brain damage. As we often say, follow the money, and nothing illustrates that like football.

Pro football players get highly paid for the risks of brain damage. College coaches make a fortune off a game which risks brain damage to unpaid players. Is that fair?

I love watching Big Ten football, but I am finding it harder and harder to suppress my moral concerns about possible permanent brain damage to the players, especially the linemen who get the most hits to the head.

We are blessed in America with freedom of expression. Let football players express themselves however they want during the national anthem. We are also free to stop watching the games, a choice I made years ago in relation to pro football because I simply lost interest.

If you are upset by protesting football players, do not buy a ticket or turn on the TV. That is your freedom of expression.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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