Flag Football Takes On Whole New Meaning

Members of the St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, varsity football team carry the American flag prior to their games. (Photo: Jim Mancari)

What has happened prior to NFL games this season is truly unprecedented.

In continuing a practice started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, NFL players have kneeled, raised their fists or engaged in what many have called disrespectful behavior during the playing of the national anthem before games.

I have to say, I’m torn on this issue.

While I would like to see all the players respect the tradition of standing for the anthem, I understand that these players have the right to exercise their freedom of speech.

So rather than take a firm side, I recently gave my audience the chance to send me their opinions on the matter. As was expected, I received several responses disagreeing with this form of protest.

Joe Leahy, a longtime New York Giants fan from Blessed Trinity parish, Breezy Point, said he was surprised to see several Giants players taking a knee during the anthem on Sept. 24 and the rest of the players linking arms as a show of unity.

“I consider linking arms just as disrespectful as kneeling or sitting,” said Leahy, a Giants season-ticket holder for over 40 years dating back to the team’s days at Yankee Stadium, the Bronx. “That’s how I was raised, and I thank my parents for instilling love of country in my heart at an early age.”

Seeing the Giants engage in these protests has changed Leahy’s undying support for his favorite team.

“I’m through with the Giants and the NFL,” he said. “God knows what I’ll find to do on Sundays in the fall.”

As always, whenever I make a call for content, my close family members and friends respond in kind.

“I think that the anthem protests need to end,” said Bobby Patronaggio, my longtime friend and a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima, Massapequa, L.I. “I believe that there’s a time and place for everything, and this is not the venue to raise these issues.

“These athletes should stand at attention and give respect to all those in our military that made so many sacrifices to give them the opportunity to play the game of football for a living.”

My cousin Jeanine Fitzgerald-Rogg, from St. Gregory the Great parish, Warwick, R.I., said she brought up the recent NFL protests with her school students. The students argued that it is the players’ right to kneel since it’s a form of freedom of speech.

Fitzgerald-Rogg then asked her students to think about where that freedom came from.

“My belief is that we are lucky enough to live in a country that gives us those rights without earning them,” she said. “I believe that we owe it to the service men and women who came before us to show respect and gratitude for their sacrifices. We do that through respecting the flag. Standing is symbolic of respecting the country that gifted us with our freedom.”

All these points from detractors of the NFL protests are well-taken. However, my aunt Mary DeBernardo, an avid sports fanatic, has a different, yet extremely well-informed opinion. I can always count on my aunt for a hard-hitting take on a sports-related issue that transcends society.

DeBernardo, a lifelong parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Windsor Terrace, said she firmly stands behind the players’ right to protest.

“As a true American, I would proudly take a knee or stand linked with them (the players),” she said. “It is your right as an American to peacefully protest, and that is a right that every American soldier defends. The protest is not against the American soldier and has been misinterpreted by the average American fan sitting on their couch watching TV.”

DeBernardo cited U.S. Flag Code 171, which states: “During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.”

The key word in there is “should,” not “must,” as DeBernardo pointed out. By taking a knee, she said, Kaepernick was not protesting the anthem but instead shedding light on the hurt and injustice endured daily by black Americans.

Moreover, DeBernardo brought up the fact that Americans – knowingly or unknowingly – disrespect the flag every day, citing U.S. Flag Code 176, stating: “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.”

“Everywhere I go, I find faded, torn flags on display or, even worse, rolling around in leaves curbside,” she said. “I pick them up, collect them and get them to a Boy Scout group for proper retirement. Last year alone, I collected over 250 flags.”

According to DeBernardo, President Donald Trump should probably be more concerned with why the players are uniting in peaceful protest and should sit down with these players to find out their reasoning and figure out how to fix it.

“Only then will America be great again,” she said.

DeBernardo continued saying she has no problem with fans who have decided to boycott the NFL, since it’s their own right to do so and no one is forcing them to watch.

She said though that she hopes those former fans are putting the upwards of 12 hours of now free time on Sundays into something more productive, especially for veterans.

“Maybe they can go out and feed a homeless vet or make a visit to the VA hospital or write letters to soldiers who get no mail,” DeBernardo said.

In conclusion, DeBernardo tied these protests back to her Catholic faith.

“As part of the universal Catholic Church, Catholic Americans are in fact Catholics first, and Americans second,” she said. “As Catholics, we are called to love and respect all people. We are called to reach out to the oppressed and the least among us and to seek justice for all people.

“We need to focus more on the issues of why the players are protesting instead of how they are protesting. The darkness of racism is covering America, and we must be the light that forces it out.”

Well said, Aunt Mary. Very well said.

Do you have a strong opinion either way on this controversial issue? I’d love to hear from you. Send your take directly to me or as a Letter to the Editor.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at

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