In the wake of the surge of over two hundred football players in the NFL taking a knee, joining arms or staying in the locker room during the national anthem—nearly a year after Colin Kaepernick peacefully started this protest in opposition of the mass murders of Black bodies at the hands of police—there has been much public debate. Ideally, I would have waited for politics and professional sports to meet harmoniously, given my personal ties to both, before joining that fray. However, it is clear that our country has reached a tipping point of calamity, rooted in race-baiting politics and spearheaded by the leader of our democracy, that has led us to open up the conversation on the true meaning of patriotism—and just what and who it looks like.
My days as an NFL cheerleader were, without question, some of the absolute best of my life. It gave me a platform to continue my love of dancing, engage in my local community, represent the franchise abroad and, most importantly, it gave me a unique sisterhood for which I am forever grateful. It also came with the responsibility of being what some might see as a local celebrity, for which I never took lightly or for granted. As someone deeply rooted in service and always cognizant of being a good example to my niece, nephew, goddaughter and other young girls around me, I make every effort to put myself in the best light so they can learn from and be better than me when they are, one day, placed in challenging circumstances.
I would be remiss of myself if I didn’t share that the unique vantage point I have as a former NFL cheerleader that comes from also being the daughter of a former NFL wide receiver. I learned activism and advocacy from my father, who participated in the NFL strike of the early 80s that led to a walk-out of all 32 teams demanding the salaries they deserved. Each team worked with their union for nearly a year ahead of the strike in preparation for the worst—and ultimately, that’s what it came down to. Players were out of work and paychecks for nearly eight weeks. I can’t imagine how those men might have reacted if then President Ronald Reagan had spoken out explicitly against them for simply for exercising their constitutional rights.
Football, like other professional sports and the arts, has the power to bring all people together by transcending borders and all kinds of systematic lines. This, among other things, is what makes America great. President Trump’s rhetoric, including direct attacks on Colin Kaepernick and the NFL, shows a divisive affront to our American values of free speech, expression, pluralism and patriotism. During my time as a professional cheerleader spanning three professional sports leagues over five years, I’ve seen an array of fans sitting, talking, laughing and being otherwise “disrespectful” while the national anthem was playing. What’s more bothersome than our potty-mouthed president disrespecting full grown men and calling for them to be fired over an anthem that was never meant to include or protect all Americans—including the 70 percent of NFL players who keep the 14 billion dollar business afloat—is that his base of support doesn’t know the history of the national anthem, or even worse, doesn’t at all care.
If I take a good look at the people I’ve met and worked with throughout my lifetime I might notice aesthetic differences, but at the root of our very existence we value some of the same things: family, peace of mind and state, leadership, moral responsibility, unity and faith. I have shared these values with Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers, social workers, school teachers and administrators, refugees, diplomats, members of Congress and their staff, union workers, professional athletes and dancers, nurses and medical professionals, activists and others doing their part to move the fabric of this country forward in a positive and inclusive direction through their sacrifice and service to the U.S. at both local and national levels.
True patriots of this great nation come in all races, ethnicities and religions. They see the strength in our diversity by championing it for the greater good of this nation. True patriots also revere America as the leader of the global stage, and simultaneously work through social and political challenges of the past and present with allies in an effort to keep us that leader. President Trump could learn a few lessons from professional cheerleaders, past and present, on patriotism. We have mastered art of composure, athleticism coupled with grace, spirit and pride of our respective teams and being positive role models in our communities—all with a smile and shiny pom-poms to match.
If Trump ever tried to cheer for all Americans, he would then realize that our strength as a united team is and always has been great.