MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you're a football fan, you already know this. For everybody else, this is the first Sunday of the NFL season. And even if you don't follow the game, you probably know that one of the ongoing dramas involves the question of whether players will kneel or not during the playing of the national anthem. Of course, this all started two years ago with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He famously took a knee. Others joined him. President Trump began furiously attacking him and other players, so more joined them. It became a thing.
It still has not settled. Kaepernick hasn't played a game since 2017 and has a pending grievance against the league. He's also featured in a new Nike ad that celebrates him and others. That's also sparked controversy.
So you probably know all this, but what you might not know is why Kaepernick started kneeling to begin with as opposed to something else, and that's where Nate Boyer comes in. He's a former active-duty Green Beret who had a stint in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. He initially advised Kaepernick to take a knee instead of sitting down during the anthem as a sign of respect. He recently wrote about this, so we called him.
Nate Boyer, thanks so much for joining us.
NATE BOYER: Yeah. Of course. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So take us back. How did you get to talk with Colin Kaepernick to begin with? How did your conversation ensue?
BOYER: You know, this was two years ago, 2016 during the preseason. And he, you know, had sat on the bench. And I think it was actually his third time he'd sat on the bench. But it was the first time it had received national attention. And, you know, he got questioned about it, and he said, well, I'm not going to stand for the flag of a country that oppresses black people and people of color. And then he talked about, you know, social injustices and police brutality and why he thought, you know, he shouldn't be standing for the anthem.
And it struck a chord with me, of course, and it struck a chord with a lot of people - a lot of people in the veteran community as well - because obviously the flag and the anthem and what that stuff stands for means something, you know, very different to us. And I was pretty upset, you know, just because I felt like he didn't understand what those symbols really represent. And - but instead of letting my anger overwhelm me, I decided to relax a little bit, and I wrote this open letter that was just explaining my experiences, my relationship to the flag.
And Colin actually reached out, said he wanted to meet with me. And we sat in the lobby of the team hotel, discussed our situation, our different opinions and feelings about all this. And I suggested him taking a knee instead of sitting even though I wanted him to stand, and he wanted to sit. And it was, like, this compromise that we sort of came to. And that's where the kneeling began.
MARTIN: How did the idea of taking a knee come to you?
BOYER: I thought - at that time I said, look, I think your point has definitely been made that everyone's listening. Like, let's make a plan of attack now. And, you know, let's work on action for it. But he said, you know, what I've committed to this, and - I'm not going to do it until I start to see these changes I want to see. And, you know, I respected that decision and opinion. And I thought kneeling - personally, so I don't speak for everybody, I don't speak for every veteran. I've been told that numerous times by many people. But I thought kneeling was more respectful, and I will say that being alongside his teammates was the biggest thing for me.
And, you know, people - in my opinions and in my experience, kneeling's never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act. I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful. But, of course, that's just my opinion.
MARTIN: Sure. And others obviously disagree. Are you surprised or - I'm just interested in how you react to the fact that this has continued to be such a - I don't know what word to use - lightning rod - that it seems to spark such a furious reaction in some quarters?
BOYER: Right. You know, I'm not surprised just because of where we are as a nation. And we've become increasingly divided over the last decade, more than I remember in my whole lifetime. We're being pulled apart, it feels like, as a country. And, you know, with the age of social media, it's - everybody can see it and feel it and contribute to it a lot more, I think.
So, no, I'm not surprised. I mean, it wouldn't have mattered what he did after sitting if it wasn't standing, facing, saluting the flag maybe exactly how somebody pictured what - that respect is supposed to be, I think a lot of people still would have been upset. You know, and the irony behind that is there's a lot of people maybe now that do that that didn't do it before.
And what I'm trying to say is, like, the people in the stands that are upset for him, you know, sitting or kneeling or whatever that are now taking the time to really focus when that anthem's being played in the stadium, where before, I don't think a lot of people really cared. I mean, I know growing up myself, it was just what we did before the ballgame. You know, when I was young, I just didn't think of it in that way. I just was, like, OK, this is traditionally due, blah, blah, blah, what's next? When are we going to start playing? And I think now people are paying more attention at that time, and I think a lot - maybe a lot of younger people, whether they're left or right, have given more thought to that symbol.
MARTIN: Some are arguing that these protests should stop because they haven't been successful in the sense that they alienate as many people as they persuade. What's your take on that?
BOYER: They've definitely achieved quite a bit of discussion (laughter) and maybe angry discussion. But it's - it is discussion. I don't know. I mean, that was one of the issues when I first met with him that I asked - was, what are your measurable goals? And at the time, to be quite honest, he didn't have any. I think personally he didn't know was going to blow up like it did. And now that it has, I think he himself had to take a step back and re-evaluate. You know, what am I going to do? What can I do? And then he took action.
And I think a lot of people on both sides of this - you know, it's definitely affecting the way you see him and maybe the way you see a whole - entire group of people. So, in a lot of ways, I think it's - I'm not going to say harmful, but it hasn't brought us together. I will say that. We live in a time where there's not a lot of respect for our fellow man.
And I'm not referring to the protests at all because personally, I don't think people should stand with pride for something that they don't believe in, period. I just don't think that. I think if you don't feel that way, then let's fix it. Let's work together to make this situation better. Because I want you to want to stand. I want you to want to feel that same type of pride that I feel. So anyway, it's obviously complicated.
MARTIN: The piece that you wrote - it was very interesting because it sounded a little bit like you were processing out loud. But here's where you came out. What you said is that, look, I don't endorse Kaepernick's method of protest, but I absolutely support his right to do so. How did you come to that place?
BOYER: Well, I've kind of felt like that since the beginning of this whole thing - is that I don't necessarily agree with him, but what I've fought for, what we all fought for - whether we like it or not, we can say we don't like it all day - but we took an oath to defend the Constitution. And I fought to defend our rights, which obviously include the first amendment, you know, which is free speech. And I don't have to agree with or even like what people do sometimes. But I have defended the right of someone to stand right in front of my face and burn an American flag, you know, and call me a baby killer or call me whatever they want. I still fought for that.
And it's what makes it very difficult, and it can be hurtful because it's just - you can say a protest or a campaign or you can say anything is about a specific idea. You can say, like, look. It's not about this. It's about this. I'm not - I don't hate America. I'm not disrespecting the flag. This is not about veterans. This is about people of color and the criminal justice system and all that. But you also don't get to choose how people perceive things. And that's what makes this even more difficult and just tougher for just a lot of people - I'm not going to say just people in camouflage, but all of us as Americans.
MARTIN: How do you feel your military service informs the way you look at this?
BOYER: Well, I think more than anything what my military service has informed me of is open-mindedness that I didn't necessarily have before, right? Before I even joined the military, for instance, I wasn't a very patriotic person. I just wasn't. You know, the reason I joined is because I went and did - I did some relief work out in the Darfur in the early 2000s, so I was in Chad and Sudan and at these refugee camps. And, you know, talk about oppression. And for that to spark this idea or this patriotism in me to want to fight for these people, to fight for those that can't fight for themselves.
And, in my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, working with people that I have so little in common with cultures- and customs-wise - but I learned to respect them because I listened to them. We had these conversations to get to know each other, and we realized we want the same stuff. We're human beings at our core. And you put all those differences aside, and you don't care about the little things anymore. You know what I mean? And you fight alongside these people, and they become your brothers in arms as well.
And I just learned to understand that I'm not going to agree with everybody. Everybody doesn't have to agree with me. And I don't have to be right all the time. It's OK because what is right? Like, we don't really even know what's right and wrong. We're just making guesses and assumptions, and we're hoping a lot of the time. And so it was through that time over there that I think it better informed me on how to live back here and how to just respect the man on my left and right, or woman on my left and right as well. Because, at the end of the day, you know, yes, we're very different in very many ways, but we're so much more similar than we are different.
MARTIN: That is Nate Boyer. He's a former Green Beret, a former NFL player.
Nate Boyer, thanks so much for talking with us.
BOYER: Of course. Thank you so much. I appreciate you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOON HOOCH'S "5-SAX PIECE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.