The roots of the NFL's national anthem controversy stretch to the 1960s and Vietnam
By SALLY JENKINS | Washington Post columnist | Published: May 27, 2018
NFL owners are finally getting what they deserve for toying with the flag all these years, while men like Rocky Bleier took shrapnel for it. Some in the league will insist their players stand for the anthem, and some will defend them for kneeling for social justice, but it's all just weekend wars-without-death. None of them know what it is to crouch in a Vietnam rice paddy and see a grenade fly into your ditch.
Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame running back and Bronze Star veteran Bleier got hit by that grenade because the U.S. Army doesn't just give lip service to the memory of dead soldiers, it actually goes back to get them. On Aug. 20, 1969, Bleier was with an infantry brigade trying to recover American bodies from a field when he ran into "activity," which is the laconic army term for a Viet Cong ambush. On this Memorial Day, it's worth thinking about Bleier and the men he went to find, because to really understand how the NFL got into its winless controversy over the national anthem, you have to go back to the 1960s and Vietnam. That's when league owners first so devalued service to country and wrapped themselves in false sentiment and cheap banners for the sake of a buck. The ghosts are merely coming back to haunt them.
Try if you can to remove yourself from the current American mind-set, in which less than 2 percent of citizens serve and yet we have a mania for honoring soldiers in stadiums. What is that about, anyway? "Could be guilt," Bleier says. Work your thoughts back to an era when 9 million Americans saw active duty, and no one had yet thought of the phrase "thank you for your service," but instead throngs were protesting in the smoking street against a swelteringly unpopular war.
"The perception of the warrior and the soldier coming back was that he was thought less of, spat upon, called a baby killer," Bleier says. "When you were leaving the combat zone and coming back, it was best if you changed out of your uniform into civilian clothes, so people didn't take exception to you."
In the middle of all that, the NFL's huckstering commissioner Pete Rozelle inaugurated the Super Bowl in 1967, and with it launched "a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism" into the game, as he put it. The flyover and "salute to America" was born. Yet, at the very moment the league was fashioning these flag extravaganzas for the sake of branding, it was also draft dodging.
Throughout the war, NFL owners pulled political strings to get players into local National Guard units and reserves to protect their rosters and revenue. The scheme was so successful Life Magazine noted "the magical immunity" of the NFL to Vietnam service. The hypocrisy still staggers: in 1967, with half a million troops sweating and bleeding in Vietnam, the league kept all but two of its players out of the draft.
Somehow, in 1968, Bleier, a rookie running back with the Steelers, was an exception who got called up. When his induction letter came, the guard unit was full. He never even thought about going to Canada; he was a Catholic schoolboy from Appleton, Wis., son of a tavern keeper, such a nice kid that he had helped drunks from the bar up and down stairs. He was apolitical. "I was a Boy Scout, altar boy, choir boy," he says. He had been educated by nuns and priests, and football coaches at Notre Dame.
"You did what you were told to do," he says. "It was, 'Yes, Sister, no, Sister.' Then it was, 'Yes, Father, no, Father.' Then it was, 'Yes, Coach, no, Coach.' And then it was, 'Yes, Sergeant, no, Sergeant.' "
He was just another replacement soldier on that day in August 1969 when his company swept a field in Heip Duic. They had had to leave American bodies there a day earlier when they came under attack, and now they were back to get them. They had just turned a corner into the rice paddy when a machine gun leveled them.
Bleier began crawling forward, trying to get his M-79 grenade launcher trained on the enemy, when he felt a punch in the leg. He thought someone had hit him with a rock. He looked down and saw two bullet holes and blood spurting from his thigh. A medic threw him some gauze, and he went back to shooting off rounds. Then the grenade came sailing at him. It hit his captain in the back and bounced. Bleier lunged away just before it blew. It caught his right leg. He took over 100 pieces of shrapnel in the foot, knee and hip.
It would be 14 hours before he got any morphine. Gunships helped them fight their way out. Some of the men carried him in a rain poncho rigged like a hammock, but they got tired and laid him down and said they'd send back a stretcher. "I was 170 pounds of dead meat," he says. He was lying there forlorn when a black soldier leaned down and said, "I got you." He picked Bleier up, threw him over his shoulder and carried him the rest of the way out. Bleier never learned his name.
In a field hospital he got a staph infection and was airlifted to Tokyo, where he was told he'd never play football again, advice he ignored. "Rocky Limps Home, Says He'll Run Again," an Indiana newspaper headline said. He came back with two medals on his chest and a cane in his hand. At a Notre Dame pep rally, he tried to ask the crowd to remember the dead in Vietnam. But he started crying and had to sit down.
The rest of his coming-home experience has been well told in his book, "Fighting Back" — how he worked out for 10 hours a day, so hard that the Steelers didn't have the heart to cut him, until in 1974 he was named a starter in the backfield alongside Franco Harris. It was the first of four Super Bowl-winning seasons in six years for the Steelers. "I didn't want to go down the line somewhere and say, 'What if,' " he says. "What if you would of ran harder? So you try to get rid of those what ifs in your life if you possibly can."
Bleier's story of sheer persistence made him a national hero, a circumstance he believes kept him mentally healthier than other vets. "Most of them went underground and suppressed their feelings," he says. "I had a different experience because it became a story. For me, it became a catharsis." He was asked over and over again to recite his Vietnam service and how he felt about it, and "I had to come up with the answer."
The answer was, "I was proud to have served," he says, and to have fought for something other than himself. But of course, "it's easy to feel that way," he observes, with his limbs intact and Super Bowl rings on his fingers. Mainly, he was proud to have learned what soldiers in all wars really fight for, which is the man beside them. He is still active with veterans' organizations, such as Warriors2Citizens which helps men transition from combat to home. And he is proud to have played a role in altering the climate for vets into something kinder and more respectful.
That respect became falsely contested last season when President Donald Trump called social activist players in the NFL "sons of bitches" for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against blacks. The kneeling provoked "a knee-jerk reaction" in Bleier, too, he admits. It offended him. "Yeah, it did." But for Bleier, the anthem discussion has become nuanced; the tangle of difficult history, misperception, patriotism and racism makes him speak gently. "You know, it wasn't the issue, it was just that it wasn't the right platform, that was my feeling," he says. "It was, 'I understand you feel your social responsibility, but this is not a platform for social change.' "
The NFL is also the wrong platform, and has been for 50 years, for calculated emotional anthem-milking. Owners slapped their agenda onto the flag long before Colin Kaepernick did, for the sake of money.
The league's latest maneuver is only more of the same pandering, no more or less sincere than a 1968 stadium flyover. The new policy approved by owners last week, which mandates standing for the anthem on the field but permits players to stay in the locker room as "protest," is just a duck-and-cover of its self-created problem. And it's likely to create only more awkwardness, similar to that experienced by the Steelers when they attempted to avoid controversy last season by staying in the tunnel during the anthem. "Which I thought was a horse-[expletive] move, rather than take a stand," Bleier says.
Underneath the NFL's inability to be rid of the issue is a broader alchemical swirl of conflicted guilt and resentment in the audience. Football players are overvalued, and soldiers are undervalued, certainly. But the truth is that we don't treat either particularly well after they are used up. "It's like being married and having an argument," Bleier muses. "And whatever the cause of the argument, the thing that comes out of it is everything that you did over the last 20 years. So all of a sudden taking one knee has sparked a disgruntlement in the fan base about everything they don't like in the product today."
It's what the league has earned for using patriotism so facetiously all these years, for invoking so much hollow sentiment and bad metaphor. The anthem argument will rage on between two abstract principles. With no chance of settling the real account.