University of Texas Systems Chancellor William McRaven, a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral, authored a strongly-worded memorandum sent to UT System presidents athletic directors and coaches in late August regarding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest inequality and oppression by refusing the stand for the national anthem.
“I spent 37 years defending freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” McRaven wrote. “Nothing is more important to this democracy. Nothing! However, while no one should be compelled to stand, they should recognize that by sitting in protest to the flag they are disrespecting everyone who sacrificed to make this country what it is today—as imperfect as it might be.”
Having served his country for nearly his entire adult life, McRaven knows what it is to sacrifice for America.
Prior to becoming UT System Chancellor, McRaven was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, leading a force of 69,000 men and women responsible for conducting counter-terrorism operations worldwide.
In that position, he helped oversee and execute Operation Neptune Spear, the raid that ultimately led to the death of Osama Bin Laden.
It was his final post in a long and distinguished career of service before he retired and returned to his alma mater.
As the UT System Chancellor, McRaven oversees 14 institutions that educate approximately 221,000 students.
Veneration for the flag and its interconnectedness to the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces isn’t a new stance for McRaven, either — back in January, the former Longhorns track athlete asked coaches and players to "face the flag and place their hand over their heart as a sign of respect to the nation."
For the son of a World World II Spitfire pilot, paying respect to the flag doesn’t imply that it represents a perfect republic.
"Far from it, honoring the flag is our collective commitment that we will constantly attempt to get better as a nation, to improve as a people, and to use the freedoms we have been given to make the earth a better place."
To support his point, McRaven recounted the history of Americans who fought or marched or protested under the flag against “bigotry, racism, sexism, imperialism, communism, and terrorism” — Buffalo soldiers, Tuskagee Airmen, suffragists, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is a flag for everyone, of every color, of every race, of every creed, and of every orientation, but the privilege of living under this flag does not come without cost,” he wrote. “Nor should it come without respect.
“The nation and everything it strives for is embodied in the American flag. We strive to be more inclusive. We strive to be more understanding. We strive to fix problems that plague our society. But in striving to do so, we must have a common bond; some symbol that reminds us of our past struggles and propels us to a brighter, more enlightened future. That symbol is the American flag.”
Kaepernick believes that by withholding his show of respect, he can bring attention to issues of inequality and oppression. In that regard, there’s no question that he’s been successful.
To McRaven, the respect for the flag must come first in order “for America to be everything we dreamed it could be.”
The debate will continue, as will the striving to forge the America that former Longhorns deep snapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer wants to exist — one where Kaepernick can stand for the national anthem and believe in the flag that McRaven believes in so deeply and has spent so much of his life protecting, with great success.
“I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem,” Boyer wrote in an open letter to the quarterback. “I’ll be standing right there next to you. Keep on trying.”
In the end, the trying is what matters, isn’t it? The shared vision of what America can be? To, like Boyer, move past anger and listen to what people of differing views are saying and why they’re saying it.
Kaepernick and Boyer have already started a dialogue and stood together to do their part to understand each other and strive for a better America.
As those efforts continue, athletes at Texas and the other system schools should probably heed the words of their chancellor by standing for the national anthem and paying respect to the flag McRaven did so much to protect and ensure that it symbolizes the America we dream it can be — if not for everything that McRaven believes the flag stands for now and could stand for in the future, then for McRaven himself and his service to the country.