IF YOUR Facebook feed was anything like mine over the weekend, about 90 percent of all posts had something to do with the controversy over kneeling for the national anthem, pro or con or both.
There is no shortage of opinion on the matter, it being almost perfectly designed to hit on every major hot button in the nation’s ongoing, continuous culture war.
I try to stick to talking about what I know, which in this case involves the media and politics.
The main thing that really jumps out for me, across the spectrum of opinion, is how few people on either side of the debate this past weekend even mentioned the original purpose of kneeling for the anthem:
To call attention to the use of excessive force by police which often disproportionately impacts people of color.
That’s it. That’s the original purpose of the anthem protest, as begun by NFL player Colin Kaepernick.
It wasn’t originally about the anthem.
It wasn’t originally about the flag.
It wasn’t originally about NFL teams continuing not to sign Kaepernick, though that seems to have spurred the most recent increase in displays of taking a knee in the NFL.
And the protests certainly were never about the U.S. military, though suddenly that seems to be what we find ourselves “debating.”
Whether you agree or not with Kaepernick’s decision and actions — and I’m not here to tell you what to think either way — there is no question regarding his original intent.
But candidly, the number of people who can precisely define what the protest debate is really about seems to be dwindling by the minute.
What we’re seeing is the original debate about police brutality morphing into a much broader debate over longstanding cultural and political conflicts, which unfortunately are even more difficult to address than police reform.
And at the center of this metamorphosis is a familiar controversial figure: President Trump.
If you paid attention to mainstream media over the weekend, you’d be struck by how uniformly they covered the controversy as a matter of the NFL vs. Trump, rather than how it began in the first place.
Many protesters themselves seemed eager to buy into that dichotomy, further muddying the waters.
The battle lines are drawn all right, but not the way they were first laid out. It’s a real game-changer (pun intended).
I’m not one of these people who thinks Trump has a well-defined political strategy of four-dimensional chess. I do think what he has are the innate instincts of a bully, which unfortunately can be pretty effective and hard to beat. (Exhibit A: Clinton, Hillary Rodham.)
In this case, by thumbing out a few tweets and making one statement at a political rally, Trump managed within the space of a few minutes to transform a long overdue debate about police reform into a political debate about who is a real American, what it means to be an American, and what our collective symbols of America mean, or should mean, to most of us.
And as usual, the mainstream media and much of the public took the bait, probably with a predictable outcome.
It’s not genius, but it is a very effective tactic that Trump continues to use, because it continues to work for him, and his opponents continue to fall for it time and again.
He makes a confrontational statement, the media hyperventilates about it, all the oxygen in the room is sucked up, and the original issues go unresolved and largely unaddressed. It's essentially how he won the election.
The fact that this current fight is taking place against a backdrop of America’s favorite sport — at least for now — only serves to starkly highlight the differences of opinion.
Football, and the NFL in particular, has made literally billions of dollars for itself, its team owners, and its players by making the organization virtually synonymous with American patriotism.
So much so that the U.S. Defense Department pays the NFL for the right to market itself at football games!
Flyovers, enormous flags, color guard ceremonies, five-minute-long renditions of the national anthem, etc. You name it, if there is a patriotic display to be made, you’ve seen it along with many others at every high-profile football game in the country, the NFL first and foremost.
Somewhere along the way, the American flag became not just the national symbol of freedom and liberty for all, but a representation of military force and reflexive patriotism for its own sake.
At this point, the NFL seems to be hoist by its own petard, a victim of its own cynical branding strategy. I find it very difficult -- in this era of billion-dollar taxpayer-funded stadiums -- to feel very sorry for the league.
Contrary to popular belief, our star-spangled banner – the flag, not the song – isn’t just a military banner or battle flag.
It represents freedom and independence, the things the military fights and dies for. They fight for those ideals on our behalf, not for the piece of cloth itself.
Genuine patriotism itself is a wonderful thing, but manufactured patriotism for its own sake is, well... manufactured.
That was why Kaepernick’s original protest, whether approved or disapproved, carried innate meaning. It was intentionally divisive, as protests are by definition.
Kneeling for the anthem is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable! That is what political protest does.
Much of the debate that has followed, however, is falling along very predictable lines, with very predictable results.
Before this past weekend, one of the best-selling jerseys sold by the NFL was Kaepernick’s old San Francisco jersey.
After this weekend, the best-selling jersey was that of Alejandro Villanueva, a U.S. Army Ranger veteran of three tours in Afghanistan who was the lone Pittsburgh Steeler to come out of the tunnel to stand for the national anthem, hand on his heart.
If you’re looking for signs of which way the political winds are blowing right now, that is the tea leaf you need to be reading.
Don’t say nobody warned you! And don’t be surprised if this whole thing ends up benefiting Trump.
In the meantime, the debate about police reform is going almost unmentioned, at least in the mainstream media.
And the mainstream media continues to obsessively cover Trump’s tweets and the reactions to them, which is both the laziest kind of “reporting” as well as the most short-sighted way to address real issues of real import.
Personally, that’s what I’m protesting the most these days.