Blue Jays’ Rowley says athletes ‘absolutely have a right’ to kneel

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Chris Rowley (45). (Nathan Denette/CP)

BOSTON – As a graduate of the United States Military Academy (West Point) who spent 2½ years in the Army as a first lieutenant, Chris Rowley believes his duty was to protect the ideals behind the American flag and national anthem, rather than just the symbols themselves.

There’s an important distinction there for the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, which is why, unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, he has no problem with protesting athletes taking a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner.

“Absolutely not,” he said in an interview Monday as the controversy raged on. “The majority of the athletes who are kneeling have made it very, very clear that they mean no disrespect and that they love their country and that they’re not disrespecting the flag or the service members. They’re using their platform to try and create some type of awareness of a social problem. I support that.

“Whether or not I agree with it or not, and I don’t believe I’m educated enough on the issue to make a stand either way, I think they absolutely have a right to do that.”

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Trump quadrupled down on his attack on NFL players Monday, tweeting that Gen. John Kelly agreed with him that kneeling athletes were disrespecting the country. Earlier in the day, he said his call for owners to fire protesting players had nothing to do with race, even though the entire movement started last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequity and police brutality.

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The furor started Friday, when at a Republican rally in Alabama for Sen. Luther Strange, Trump told the crowd he’d love see NFL owners say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” when a player takes a knee during the anthem. Later he called on the league to change its policy on the matter to punish such players. Several NFL players and owners responded defiantly Sunday, choosing to either kneel or skip the anthems entirely.

On Saturday, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell joined the protest and became the first baseball player to kneel during the national anthem. Meanwhile, Trump also rescinded an invitation to Steph Curry and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from the White House, triggering similar outrage from the basketball world during media day Monday.

What bothers Rowley, whose service included a stint in Bulgaria and Romania as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve aimed at reassuring NATO allies, is the divisive tone of the conversation and that “there’s no view that’s open to the other view by a large majority of Americans.”

He also feels it’s important that athletes make their opinions known, because “the purpose of a democracy is that people have a voice, you know?”

“Athletes using the platforms they have because of their athletic ability is a positive thing because they can use their platform to enact change for something they believe in, just like politicians do, just like anybody with any type of platform,” Rowley continued. “I think it’s 100 per cent a cop out for people to say athletes should stay in their own lane, actors should stay in their own lane, etc. Those people say that this actor or this athlete needs to stay in their own lane just because they’re saying something that their views don’t necessarily align with mine. People get a little too partisan with their leeway.”

That being said, Rowley feels strongly that any athlete taking a knee during the anthem should be well informed about what exactly they’re protesting against. As a fire support officer in the field artillery branch, his commanding officers demanded that when he came to them with a problem, he also come with a solution.

Anyone protesting should do the same, he argues.

“What I would like to see is athletes taking a knee saying these are my specific issues with certain problems we have in the United States, what can we do to fix it?” said Rowley. “Finding a solution is better than just protesting and bringing up the problem, because if you’re willing to bring up the problem, you should be part of the solution, as well.

“Give me a specific example and I will fight it with you. If it’s just an athlete taking a knee and giving some vague statement about it, then there’s nothing we can really fight together.”

That, of course, has been lost in the shuffle, as amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, an ongoing debate on revised health care and a new travel ban stealthily issued Sunday night, the discourse has been hijacked by a highly charged debate over anthem protests.

In turn, the issues initially raised by Kaepernick have been largely ignored amid the debate over whether or not the way the athletes are protesting is disrespectful to the country.

“They’ve been clear it’s not a disrespect to veterans, to the flag. They see a problem and that’s their way of addressing the problem. Their method of doing it is their own choice,” said Rowley. “If I wanted to enact social change, would I take a knee during the national anthem? Absolutely not. But I have a different background. I’ve served and I think that would be taken very differently. If that’s the way they want to raise awareness and create momentum for social change of a problem they see in the country, I don’t have a problem with it.”