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Does Mike Evans incident show that intolerance is growing?

Patriotism at games could get out of hand, just like suppression of free speech

There was a time when my hometown newspaper, then called the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, was trying to be more inclusive in its coverage. It worked. Instead of an all-white cast of characters, you would see in stories and photos the occasional doctor, teacher, or lawyer of color.

A member of my church noticed the trend with disapproval and expressed himself after Mass over coffee and doughnuts. He deplored such political correctness.

“So,” I responded, “you’re telling me that what we need in the St. Pete Times are more stories about white people?”

I have a similar question today for one of my Florida state senators.

Stories in the Times have described the backlash against Tampa Bay Buccaneers star receiver Mike Evans. On the Sunday of Veterans Day weekend, Evans did not stand for the national anthem, a protest, he said, against the results of the presidential election.

The reaction from across the country suggested that Evans had stepped way out of bounds.

Reporter Steve Bousquet quoted Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala as saying of the protest by Evans, “I think it’s outrageous. I just think it’s wrong, it’s selfish and I’m tired of it.” He went on to encourage a boycott of Bucs games. He threatened to use his legislative influence to withhold money from Raymond James Stadium.

Evans should apologize, he said, or the Bucs should release him.

To which I have this response for the senator: “So, you’re telling me, sir, that we need more expressions of patriotism at sporting events?”

How would that be possible? Let’s be creative:

  • Instead of just one flyover of jets from nearby MacDill Air Force Base, we could have one to celebrate each time the Buccaneers offense makes it into the red zone.
  • Who needs cannons fired from a pirate ship? Give us rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
  • Let’s stand for the anthem at the beginning of the game. But let’s have another patriotic song at each TV timeout, all fans being required to remove their caps. A set list could include: God Bless America, America the Beautiful (the Ray Charles version), Born in the USA, This Land Is Your Land, and Fortunate Son.
  • It’s not enough to recognize the veterans in the stands and their families just once by having them stand. Let’s kick all the big shots, including state senators, out of the corporate boxes and luxury suites and offer aid and comfort to the bravest among us.
  • The flag that is unfurled on the field for big games is way too small. Let’s erect a domed roof atop Raymond James Stadium and paint it inside and out in red, white, and blue.
  • Only hot dogs for sale in the concessions. Only American beers – nothing from Belgium.
  • For cheerleaders: All camo outfits, all the time.

The Times reported that Latvala said he respected Evans’ right to protest. But how do you respect a right and then do everything in your power to repress it? That’s not the kind of R-E-S-P-E-C-T that Aretha was looking for.

Most comments on Latvala’s Facebook page supported him, some of them tinged with nationalism and race. “He needs to go to another country and see what they pay him!” said one comment. “Just another thug,” said another.

Evans was roundly criticized for not having voted, something he had admitted in a tweet. Sure, sitting out an election and then criticizing the outcome does not help your credibility. Evans should vote. But so should the thousands of slackers in the stands who would boo Evans even though they, too, haven’t voted. As a student of the First Amendment, I can assure you that you don’t sacrifice your right to express yourself even though you didn’t mark the box for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Sadly, Latvala and the other patriots not from New England have gotten their way. Predictably, Evans was forced to issue an apology for his protest with this statement:

I want to start by apologizing to all the U.S. military members, their families, and the fans who I offended by my actions on Sunday. It was never my intention as I have tremendous respect for the men and women who serve our country.

I have very strong emotions regarding some of the many issues that exist in our society today. I chose to sit as an expression of my frustration towards this year’s election. It was very personal for me, as it was for so many Americans.

With that being said, I will not sit again during the national anthem because I want to focus my efforts on finding more effective ways to communicate my message and bring about change by supporting organizations and movements that fight for equal rights for minorities.

This Sunday, I will be back to standing with my teammates.

Tom Jones, columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, praised the 23-year-old Evans for dealing with the wave of irrationality that hit him as a consequence of his protest. He reaffirmed his concern about the election results and how they might affect minorities. But Evans also asserted an attachment to traditional expressions of patriotism: “When I was a kid, man, I used to love standing for the national anthem. I think of our troops, but most importantly, I think of the American population and everybody as a whole. And I think of our leader. I think of who our leader is, so it’s going to be some foggy area there. But I will stand.”

I work in a school where a marble plaque of the First Amendment rests right outside the front door. I see it every day. It is to me, in every way, the equal of Old Glory. Everyone who removes a cap and stands in the sun to sing the anthem is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment. Every player who kneels to pray with his friends and foes after a game is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment.

Free speech is easy to accept when it does not offend. What Latvala and his flock ignore is that the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect not the easy speech of conventional prayer and sentimental patriotism, but the hard speech of unpopular protest.

Mike Evans wants the country to be better than it showed us during the election. He was willing to express that feeling in a polite, quiet individual protest. That one man sitting down could not be tolerated is yet another sign of a bad and dangerous road ahead. Remember that young Chinese student standing alone in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. He is the author of “Writing Tools” and many other books.