NFL players took a stand this past weekend by kneeling during the national anthem and critics -- including President Trump -- have said the protests are disrespectful to military service members. We asked veterans what they really think about the NFL protests.
The movement began last year when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during multiple pregame anthems to raise awareness of racial inequality in the U.S. Players across the country knelt in protest during the national anthem this week after Trump raised the issue during a rally in Alabama on Friday.
"Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a b--- off the field right now? Out. He’s fired," Trump said.
The comment prompted hundreds of football players to kneel during the national anthem, and some teams opted to skip the pregame ceremony altogether and stay in the locker room.
Trump responded to the protests with a series of tweets over the weekend, saying players should respect the flag that soldiers have fought and died for and suggesting Americans should boycott the NFL.
Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag --- we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
The president also retweeted several examples of veterans who were injured or killed in combat to back up his argument, including former NFL player Pat Tillman.
On Tuesday, Trump doubled down on his criticism in a tweet, saying the NFL should enforce a no kneeling policy.
The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
But how do veterans really feel about the protests? And how do they feel about Trump's response to them?
Some veterans said the protests were hurtful, but said they still support the players' right to express themselves freely.
"The initial reaction is always, for me is a reaction of pain, a reaction of hurt. I believe that, as a veteran, we kind of start to see icons or symbols of our country like the flag, like the national anthem as things that become sacred," said Hugh Pham, 31, a former Army intelligence officer.
"But then you have to ask yourself, why do I feel this way? And then you have to put that pain aside and really try to understand the situation, understand the opposition and what they're trying to say and see things from their perspective," Pham said.
Samantha Jenkins said she wasn't as offended by the kneeling during the anthem as the players who opted not to come out on to the field at all.
"That hurt a lot more than the teams that decide we want to bring awareness to the situations we feel are important," Jenkins, 27, said.
Others said they weren't bothered at all by the protests.
"Kneeling during the national anthem, to me, is no big deal whatsoever. We fought for people to protest, to have First Amendment rights that are protected by the Constitution. Our job is to support and defend the Constitution, even if we don’t agree with what people are doing," said Brian Tipton, 29, another Army veteran.
"If they were disrespecting the flag by standing on it, stepping on it, burning it… then it’s a different story. But just taking a knee, their hands are still over their hearts. It’s no big deal," Tipton added.
Leigh Muckey, a former Army linguist and intelligence officer, said he was excited to see the players making a bold statement.
"I stood up for my principles. I did it so you could stand up for your principles, and if standing up for your principles means sitting down, then by God do it," Muckey, 31, said.
DelRay Davis, an Army veteran in Oregon, said he thought it was strange for people to use military service as an argument against peacefully protesting.
"My service was in support of those freedoms, so the exercise of those freedoms. It seems a little bit silly to get upset about," he said.
Davis, 43, added that he's more bothered "that veterans and service members are being used as a cudgel."
Jenkins also said she didn't appreciate military members being used as a political talking point.
"Personally, I don’t feel that it is OK to use fallen service members to gain an advantage an a personal agenda. That’s not OK," she said.
"As far as saying you should stand because there are those that fall, the fallen has also given them the right to kneel," Jenkins added.
Tipton said he didn't think any players would be fired as punishment for protesting and said Trump's remarks are "causing more of a divide in the country."
Although these veterans had different emotional responses to the protests, they all said that they support the athletes' rights to protest.
"I fully understand and support those that want to kneel, but it’s more than just racism. That anthem, that flag, doesn’t represent a president, an ideology, it represents your nation," Jenkins said.
If given the chance to talk to players who kneel, Pham says he would tell them "I disagree, but I understand."
Tipton's message to the players: "Continue to do what you believe is right."
The White House on Monday defended Trump's remarks on the NFL protests.
“This isn’t about the president being against anyone," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at her daily briefing. "This is about the president and millions of Americans being for something.”
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