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Air Force Academy free from anthem protests but represented in high-profile roles on the issue

Author: Brent Briggeman, The Gazette - September 27, 2017 - Updated: September 27, 2017

Air Force Academy cadets salute during the National Anthem before the 2013 season opener against Colgate Saturday, August 31, 2013 at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Air Force beat Colgate 38-13. (The Gazette file photo)

The NFL’s national anthem protest has virtually no chance of reaching the Air Force Academy.

First, the Falcons almost always remain in the locker room during the playing of the anthem. Second, unlike the football-playing citizens who are utilizing their First Amendment rights to sit or kneel during the anthem, members of the military are required by rule to follow a precise set of instructions when the song is played.

Even at practice, Air Force players come to a pause, remove their helmets and face the speakers late in the 4 o’clock hour when the academy plays the anthem as it lowers the flag in a daily ceremony.

When cadet-athletes are present for the playing of anthem at games, in basketball for instance, they stand at perfect attention in stark contrast to the often fidgeting, swaying opponents across the court.

Service academy graduates have taken high-profile roles in the controversy on both sides, and many recent Air Force athletes and grads have made their feelings on the issue known on social media.

“Stand, sit, kneel, lay it doesn’t matter,” former Falcons basketball player Hayden Graham tweeted Monday. “We fight for (individuals) to have the freedom of choice in America. That is exactly why this place is great.”

The protests began last year by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to call attention to what he felt was a lack of accountability associated with disproportionate police violence targeted at unarmed minorities. That spread in relatively small numbers through the NFL over the past 13 months but exploded this past week after President Donald Trump called protesting players “sons of bitches” and suggested they be fired.

In a weekend that saw more than 250 NFL players participate in protests, one potentially iconic image that emerged was that of former Army player Alejandro Villanueva, who went on to serve as an Army Ranger, standing alone for the anthem as his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates avoided a public display by waiting in the tunnel.

“I can’t think of a better guy to represent our program, our institution, the United States Army and the NFL than that guy,” Army coach Jeff Monken said Tuesday.

But one of the most vocal supporters of the protest movement in the coaching world came from former Air Force player and assistant Gregg Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

“Our country’s an embarrassment in the world,” Popovich said Monday at Spurs media day, continuing a months long pattern of critical remarks on Trump.

And Popovich clearly has a following, as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in his anticipation of Popovich’s remarks, “I considered skipping practice to watch Spurs Media Day.”

“Coach Pop out here making Academy grads proud,” recent Air Force grad and current assistant coach Jacobi Owens tweeted in response to Popovich.

Former Air Force and Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Chad Hennings told, “I totally believe the league, the owners and the players have been played as pawns on both sides of the political fence to continue to divide an already divided nation.

“Who is making out more on this? It’s the political parties, not the people who want to watch sports and athletics as an escape, to cheer on their team and to not deal with what they are inundated with on social media day in and day out.

“I’ll leave it at that.”

Asked about the issue Monday, Air Force coach – and graduate – Troy Calhoun acknowledged the right of the players to hold the peaceful protest.

“You’re completely allowed to do it,” Calhoun said. “There are some shortcomings, nationally. … You just want to make sure we’re respectful to those that have served and especially to those that have perished while serving. I think there are probably other ways probably that can maybe be expressed to maybe address and improve some shortcomings.”

Calhoun was then asked to clarify what he meant by shortcoming.

“I think our focus on education and opportunity, we need to be a country that embraces that to no end. Opportunity needs to be as precious as it comes in this nation, and that only happens through a baseline of really heavily investing in education. Good teachers – good public school teachers – are invaluable to a high-quality society. And then making sure that everybody – everybody – has access not only to K through 12, but they ought to have a chance to go to college or go to a trade school, a skills school. Is that as an electrician or a plumber? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get a bachelor’s of science. That access ought to be there. What it does is I think it only opens more doors and opportunities for people in this nation. And then there’s got to be a way where that’s balanced with commerce. …

“We’ve got to find that as a nation. I think there’s a way where that can be expressed without taking from those that have served and those that have passed.”

On social media, most current and former Air Force athletes make their thoughts known by frequently retweeting viewpoints, with most sticking to a consistent political ideology. These opinions often cover the extreme ends of the spectrum.

But when it comes to direct tweets, most have followed the military script and stuck closer to the political center.

“I absolutely love what the Cowboys just did,” former baseball All-American Tyler Jones tweeted after Dallas briefly kneeled, then locked arms and stood for the playing of the anthem prior to its game on Monday night. “Make a statement, show unity, and still show respect for the flag and what it represents.”

Brent Briggeman, The Gazette