On Sunday morning, the tragic news broke that Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez had been killed in a boating accident in Miami. Fernandez, who was only 24-years-old, was not only one of baseball’s top young pitchers -- he had defected from Cuba, arriving in South Florida on his fourth attempt in 2007 and even saving his own mother’s life along the way. Fernandez was especially a hero and inspiration to Miami’s Cuban-American community, which flocked to the stadium on days when he pitched.
Just a few hours after the news broke of Fernandez’s death, Matt Gaetz, a Republican candidate for Congress in Northwest Florida, tweeted the following:
To all who will kneel during the anthem today - just remember how Jose Fernandez risked his life just for the chance to stand for it— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) September 25, 2016
Gaetz was widely mocked for making political hay out of the person’s death, after a ridiculously short period of time, and applying it to an ongoing political controversy that was completely unrelated to said tragedy, while presuming to enlist the freshly dead person in a political cause of which he wasn't a part of when he was alive. One could just as easily argue that Fernandez departed a repressive country in which fealty to the ruling regime is enforced, to America, where it’s not.
Anthem non sequiturs
And it’s not only Gaetz. Ever since the start of the #anthem controversy, there have been various viral stories and memes that have gained purchase throughout the right-wing media -- most notably, the video of a nine-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, who struggled to stand for the anthem prior to a football game. It’s often shared with the admonition that if he can stand, #Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players protesting the national anthem should too.
That’s an inspiring video and I’m proud of that boy. I’m just not exactly sure how you jump straight from there to “shut up, black athletes!”
What the protest is really about
These sorts of takes both misrepresent and misunderstand what the NFL anthem protests are all about. Colin Kaepernick and the other NFL players are using the anthem to draw attention to a political cause -- and because we’re still talking about that cause weeks later, it’s pretty clear that the protest is working.
But here’s what Kaepernick and the NFL protesters are not doing: They’re not seeking to have the national anthem banned. They’re not trying to prevent or restrict anyone else from making the opposite decision from theirs. They’re asserting their right to not stand for the anthem -- while in no way attempting to restrict the rights of anyone else to stand or not stand, whether it’s a child with special needs, a Cuban-American pitcher, or a candidate for Congress.
There’s actually an inspiring story about Jose Fernandez and the national anthem, shared on ESPN the day of his passing. When the Marlins played an exhibition game at Fort Bragg earlier this year, not long after Fernandez became an American citizen, he excitedly filmed the military flyover, following the playing of the anthem.
An immigrant and a refugee, Jose Fernandez represented the best of America. Those who would use his death to impugn the American-ness of others are among the worst.