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Johnnie Ashe considered taking a knee at the US Open

At Monday’s flag ceremony, Arthur’s brother changed his mind to preserve careers of others

At 11 a.m. Sept. 1, I received a text from Johnnie Ashe saying there was an urgent matter he wished to discuss.

Ashe, the younger brother of tennis legend Arthur Ashe Jr., said he planned to shake things up during the flag ceremony at the US Open in New York on Monday evening. When we spoke, Ashe said he planned to take a knee as the national anthem was being played.

Talk about an “Oh, my God” moment.

I’ve attended the US Open for nearly 20 years and can’t remember a political demonstration. But we live in times that test men’s and women’s souls.

Ashe, a former Marine, said he was not upset with anyone at the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), but with the president of the United States who, he feels, uses the flag and patriotism to divide the nation.

Ashe said he loves the flag.

“I was the flag for 20 years,” he said, referred to his service in the Marines. “I was ready to go anywhere, anytime at the whim of the government to fight for the rights of freedom and man.”

By noon Sept. 1, Ashe sent a second text saying that he had decided to compromise. Out of respect for Katrina Adams, the USTA president, and Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, superintendent of West Point, he would wait until after the playing of the national anthem and then he would take a knee.

“If it were just me, I would have knelt. But by no means do I want to create any type of situation that adversely affects anyone around me other than myself.”

Early Monday morning, Ashe, who turned 70 in May, sent a text saying that he was not going to kneel at all. He told Williams what he had planned. The general asked Ashe to stand down and he agreed to do so.

“If it were just me, I would have knelt,” he told me Monday evening, outside the President’s Box at Arthur Ashe Jr. Stadium. “But by no means do I want to create any type of situation that adversely affects anyone around me other than myself.”

Ashe explained how his brother Arthur had brought Adams into the USTA and she climbed the ranks, becoming the first African-American to head the organization. She is also the first president to be asked to serve a second term.

“Arthur introduced Katrina to the USTA because he saw something in her and she’s proven Arthur to be right,” he said. “I don’t want to upset that.”

Williams is the first black officer to command West Point in its 216-year history.

“He has had a storied career. He has punched his ticket and I don’t want to disturb that.

“I’m 70 years old,” Ashe said. “I wasn’t worried about what would happen to my children. They know who I am, and their bosses know who I am. I was concerned about Katrina and the general. They’ve got mountains they want to cross. No way in hell was I going to create any problems for them crossing those mountains.”

Ashe added: “I can take the heat. I’ve been taking it for 70 years. But they have careers in front of them.”

Why Ashe wanted to protest is more important than why he ultimately did not. He is a well-respected former Marine who served two tours of duty during the Vietnam War. His protest was provoked by President Donald Trump, who Ashe believes is stoking hatred, chaos, and polarization. Ashe believes that the president purposely has let rabid racists off their leashes and encouraged them to spew hate.

“Who would have thought that in 2018 we would still be going through this?” he said, referring to the nation’s tense racial climate. “Why are we going through it? Because it’s expedient. That’s the only way he could do it,” Ashe said, referring to the president’s election. “He has nothing else to offer but hate.”

Had he knelt during the anthem on Monday, Ashe would have taken a major step toward changing the narrative around the current protests by athletes during the anthem. The message has been hijacked and twisted into being a protest against the military.

“It’s not about disrespecting the flag or the military,” he said. “It’s about people respecting others.” The flag, he said, is not about gerrymandering to dilute the growing presence of the black and brown vote and maintain the balance of power.

“People are afraid of losing their power — that’s not American. That’s not what the flag stands for. That’s not ‘We the People.’ Our flag is a symbol of freedom all over the world.”

As we ended our conversation, I asked Ashe what he thought Arthur would be doing during these polarizing times.

“Arthur would have done something long before now,” he said. “It may have been leading a march. It may have been getting people together to support somebody, but Arthur would have done something and he would have done it in his fashion and in his style.”

Would he have knelt?

“I am not sure if Arthur would have knelt,” Ashe said. “But I know he would have understood if I had.”

Ashe was heartened to hear about the warm reception Colin Kaepernick received last week when he attended the Open. It reinforced the notion that protest, and righteous indignation, while controversial and even painful in the moment, has its rewards in the long run.

“When righteous people do the right things for the right reasons,” Ashe said, “righteous people will support you.”

Kaepernick may never play again for an NFL team, but his respect among the masses is growing and Nike has just extended his endorsement contract through 2028.

“When righteous people do the right things for the right reasons,” Ashe said, “righteous people will support you.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Jr. becoming the first black man to win a major tennis championship.

In 1967, Ashe sacrificed to make the historic event possible when he asked to extend his tour of duty in Vietnam to decrease the likelihood that Arthur would be shipped to Vietnam. Ashe sacrificed then and he sacrificed again this week when he passed up the chance to make a political point to achieve a greater good.

But Ashe promised that he was not finished.

“I know that the good Lord is going to give me another chance,” he said Monday evening. “He didn’t bring me this far and have me change my mind at the last minute not to give me another opportunity.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.