One of the things that makes major league sports so much fun is watching and getting away from the problems and stresses of everyday life. It’s a fun hobby to follow your team, cheer them on, and hope their opponent performs poorly, at least for that day. 

It’s also nice to keep sports in its own little bubble free from politics. It used to be a wonderful escape from the challenges that surround us and, in most cases, a healthy and rejuvenating hobby. No matter what was going on in our little world specifically, or the world at large, enjoying sports for the sake of sports was a refreshing oasis from the never ending crises in our nation and across the globe.

Something has changed and it happened long before Donald Trump became president. 

Amazingly, the head coach of The Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin, yesterday ordered his team to stay “in the tunnel” out of sight of fans to “protect” them from having to make a difficult choice in front of the crowd and the cameras. Do these two and three hundred pound adults really need that kind of motherly love from coach Mike?

Fortunately, there was the story of Steelers Offensive Tackle, Alejandro Villanueva, who broke ranks with the group-think of his team and honored the country and the game by doing what was right, even when it would have been easy to stay safe, protected and out of sight. Even though he now feels bad about not supporting his teammates, just maybe three tours of duty in Afghanistan instills a healthy and mature sense of appreciation for the blessings found only here in the United States.

I liked watching sports so much better before Bob Costas started lecturing viewers on the ills of firearms. 

I liked sports much more before Curt Schilling was fired from ESPN for disparaging the notion of transgender bathrooms.  

I liked sports much better before ESPN personality, Jemele Hill was not fired for publicly calling the President of the United States a white supremacist. 

I liked sports much better before Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner.

I liked sports much better when, to paraphrase superstar, Drew Brees , standing and putting your hand on your heart while the national anthem played and the flag waved was still considered and assumed to be “unifying.”

Could there be a more unifying expression than Americans of differing backgrounds and beliefs all standing together and honoring the greatest nation to ever exist?  Why not preserve that brief but predictable moment of collective and awe-inspiring gratitude for the blessings this nation has to offer?

Many players in the NFL generate more income in a single game than most Americans do in an entire year…and this is an understatement.

Why not show some gratitude for a minute or two during the national anthem in recognition of the enormous opportunity this country has provided for them and their families? Why not protest and champion whatever causes and injustices they find noble on their own time?

After all, disrespecting the time-honored tradition of standing during the anthem is about as divisive as it comes. For my entire life, I have stopped in my tracks, removed my hat, and gazed at the American Flag. From Little League through high school through a few World Series games and my only Super Bowl, this has been an automatic demonstration of thanks for those who made my freedom a reality. In fact, until last year, the only people I ever remember not standing could not stand because they were in wheel chairs.

And while the anthem has played, like many Americans and many athletes, I prayed silently and gratefully for our nation and for those who have made our freedoms possible. During sport after sport, game after game, decade after decade, I have stood next to opposing fans, black and white, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, old and young alike.

Honestly, I didn’t know who was standing beside me and I didn’t care. But I knew we shared a common bond; we both loved our country, warts and all, enough to honor it when the moment came and the anthem began.

Only now do I realize how profound those seemingly routine moments were not so long ago. All of us stopped, stood, and humbly remembered. I’ve even stood for the Canadian National Anthem out of simple respect.

Yes, as Americans, we have the right to peacefully protest our dissatisfactions and perceived injustices, but as with many things in life, there is a time and a place.

Exploiting the platform of the National Football League (and likely more sports to follow) and the previously unifying moment of national patriotism, exemplified by standing in unison for the flag of our nation, is definitely not that place.

Very simply, it is the wrong place and the wrong time. It is not the proper forum.

The NFL can stop this practice if they like. They have not. However, they stopped teams from honoring the fallen Dallas Police officers with helmet stickers and had the audacity to suppress recognition of the heroes we lost on 911.

The owners can stop it if they like because the players are their employees. They have not. Our right to inappropriately protest or state our opinion doesn’t stop our employer from firing us. Just ask the former ESPN broadcasters who have been terminated in recent years.

Coach Tomlin said this past Sunday that his team is not “politicians” but rather “coaches and professional athletes.” 

I agree. 

Hopefully, the Steelers and all the NFL teams will get back to their true profession, just “football.” And, we will all be much better because of it.

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