Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports



Last Friday night, Week Three of the NFL season became larger than football. It became larger than tackles, touchdowns, quarterback sacks or last minute gridiron heroics. The instant that the President chose to call NFL players "sons of bitches" for kneeling in protest during the National Anthem, the ideological extremes of an already fractured America slipped even farther apart. What was to be a weekend of compelling gridiron matchups became a tug of war between each side of the political fence...with neither willing to budge...and the impasse only got uglier as the weekend wore on. The ranks of those kneeling swelled, political pundits weighed in, and football faded to little more than an afterthought.

Since this eco-political nightmare started...a question has perpetually found its way into my mind: Is this the land of the free?

As a prior service US Marine, I have a unique perspective on this. To me, the National Anthem and the National Ensign are to be revered. To me, both are representative of the courage and selflessness of those who have answered the call to service. My perspective on both is a reflection of my life experience, my time in the Corps, and my view of the Country. But that doesn't really answer the question posed earlier, does it? Is this the land of the free? Because that is one of the key elements to this issue...freedom.

Freedom is tricky business. Real freedom is celebrating the right of every single person in this country to speak his or her mind, to worship as her or she sees fit, and to peacefully protest that which he or she feels is unjust. We may not always agree with what our fellow Americans have to say...but they are still free to speak. We may not pray in the same manner...but we are still free to worship (or not, should we choose). We may not feel the sting of the same injustice...but each of us is free to raise our voice in protest should we deem it necessary.

I can vividly recall my oath of enlistment: "I, Armand Bolino, solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic same manner ; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, in accordance with regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice; so help me God." It is to the Constitution that I swore to bear true faith and allegiance. Not a song. Not a flag. Rather, I swore to uphold the ideals that these symbols represent.

Some of you are likely furious right now. Some of you are upset at athletes for showing disrespect to the men and women who have stood in service to this country. Some of you are upset at athletes for showing disrespect to those who have fallen in service. To those of you who are angry, I have a simple question: is it disrespectful to use the freedom secured by the sacrifices of those who came before us?

Some of you are likely wondering whether or not I kneel for the Anthem. No, I do not. But make no mistake...though I do not kneel, I would lay down my life to guarantee the freedom to kneel...because the moment we deny freedom to one, the freedom of all has been rendered worthless. Having sworn to uphold and defend the law of the land, I can do nothing but acknowledge a fellow American's right to peaceful protest. And so should you...because unless all of us are free...none of us are free.

Freedom is only a part of the issue, however. There is something else to this: What is this protest about in the first place? This is tricky business, too. It's what inspires anger, fear, anxiety and sorrow in so many who look to sports as a respite from the daily grind. It's why so many are looking away from the games, abandoning social media or just tuning out altogether.

In my estimation, tuning out is the *last* thing that any of us should do. Ignoring the elephant in the room won't make it go away. Football is something that each of you has in common. Were any of you to wander into a sports bar on a random Sunday, odds are that you'd share a high five or a bear hug with a complete stranger before the afternoon was over. That is powerful. Don't turn away from it. Don't tune it out. Use it. Use it to build bridges, not walls. As heated as this topic has become, it represents an opportunity. The injustice that has inspired this protest need not divide us. Instead, it should be viewed as a chance for each of us to use sports as a way to find common ground. Come together. Listen to each other.

It can start with you, today. Each of you has been presented with a rare opportunity to open an honest dialogue about injustice that has been a part of our society for far too long. Don't waste it.