There’s nothing un-American about taking a knee as an act of respectful dissent. The right to freely protest without hurting others or destroying property is at the core of what makes our nation great. National Football League players who kneel when the national anthem is played are protesting racism and police brutality, not inciting disrespect for the anthem or the flag.

If anything, those who demand silence in the face of racial injustice and police brutality are the ones disrespecting core American values.

More players than ever took a knee on Sunday, sometimes locking arms in solidarity and NFL owners supporting them. It was sparked in large part by President Donald Trump’s weekend remarks, starting with a political rally Friday in Alabama. He said team owners shouldn’t allow players to express political views. Trump followed that comment in the style to which the nation has become all too accustomed, yelling that owners should, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick pioneered this form of political expression, drawing national attention last year for remaining seated during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial injustice. When that gesture drew scrutiny, Kaepernick began kneeling instead, saying it allowed him to show respect while continuing to press his point about oppression.

Kaepernick’s protest began while Barack Obama was still in the White House and, as he noted over the weekend, was never directed at Trump. The president has inserted himself nonetheless. The White House defended Trump’s remarks Monday as a defense of patriotism. But no true patriot sets out to deepen divisions across the nation as Trump is doing.

Trump’s call for hostility toward the kneelers had the opposite effect, causing their numbers to grow. Trump apparently missed the point that players were locking arms ahead of their games to protest his remarks. Trump tweeted: “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

The nation is embroiled in the fiercest debate and demonstration over civil rights since the 1960s. And Trump is tweeting about TV ratings? His comments demonstrate a tone-deafness to the legitimate fears and grievances of African-Americans and other people of color about skewed treatment by police and the justice system.

The last time we checked the Constitution, professional athletes don’t give up their free speech rights just because they’re on a playing field. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggests players should keep their mouths shut in their workplace. Had Mnuchin and his boss followed that same advice, perhaps the nation wouldn’t be as divided as it is today.

Either way, we’d sooner stand up for Mnuchin’s and Trump’s free speech rights than submit to their dictatorship of silence.

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