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June 14, 2020

It Was Never About the Flag

By Erin Casey Pellegrino

My oldest brother Patrick Casey was a combat veteran. A proud member of the 5th Stryker Brigade in the 17th Infantry of the U.S. Army, his unit was deployed to rural Afghanistan and tasked with locating and destroying improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They experienced among the highest casualty rates of the war. Out of 800 soldiers, 22 were killed in action and 70 more wounded.

Being part of that death and destruction changed Pat. Nervously hoping for his safe return changed me.

The American flag became an ever-present part of our lives during that period. I was working for the NFL at the time and could hardly look at the flag during the national anthem before games without choking up. In the face of so much fear and sacrifice, it became a symbol of hope and pride for our family.

The flag took on even more meaning when Pat was killed in a senseless act of violence soon after returning from war. At his funeral, he was honored with a military salute. I watched as his comrades carefully folded the flag that draped his coffin and handed it to our mother.

Recently, I have been reflecting on that time and the symbols that brought us great comfort with a new awareness of how differently those same symbols can rightfully be interpreted by others. It's partly because today is Flag Day – which was also Pat's birthday. But it mostly stems from my disgust over the racism that continues to poison our nation, and my anger over the renewed false narratives that athletes protesting police brutality and systemic racism are instead disrespecting our troops.

Soon after Pat died, I left the NFL, which had afforded me great opportunities, to pursue a career of service. In 2015, I found a new home at RISE, a national nonprofit coalition of every major U.S. sports league that directly combats racism through sports and education.

Kaepernick and teammates kneeling during national anthem

A year later, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest the murder of unarmed Black men and women by police. When I first saw Kaepernick kneel, I was confused and upset. But when I challenged myself to listen to his reasons -- really listen – I realized his protest, and those that other athletes have pledged to continue, are not about the flag or the military. They are a desperate call for help by a perpetually marginalized group of people being terrorized by those sworn to protect them, and who suffer from a society designed with roadblocks to their success, health and safety.

In the months following Kaepernick's initial protest, I helped organize a series of closed-door strategy sessions that RISE co-hosted at Morehouse College on how professional sports leagues could best work together to support athletes advocating for change. Social justice giants such as Dr. Harry Edwards, who worked closely with Kaepernick, and John Carlos, the Civil Rights icon who protested racial injustice at the 1968 Olympics, joined professional athletes and decision-makers from the leagues to share their perspectives and discuss next steps. It was a transformative experience. I walked away from those sessions knowing deep in my heart that my brother Pat would not only support their protest but would encourage me to join it.

Though I've spent the last five years learning more about the racial disparities that exist in our country, I know that as a white woman, I will never truly understand the experiences and sheer bigotry that people of color face daily. But that doesn't mean my voice is not necessary and important.

Considering less than 1 percent of Americans serve in our Armed Forces, I feel uniquely qualified, as the sister of a veteran, to reject arguments that claim protesting systemic racism is disrespectful to our troops.

The flag stands for free speech in our home. It stands for the yet unrealized ideals that our nation was founded upon. It stands for all citizens, regardless of color or creed, to enjoy the protected rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

My brother and so many other courageous Americans marched into battle under the banner of our flag to defend those ideals. This Flag Day, and every day, I refuse to sit quietly while our Black brothers and sisters are murdered in the streets, or even in their own homes. I refuse to let those who have never served or sacrificed attempt to once again hijack this narrative for their own purpose or political gain. I refuse to stay silent while we still have work to do, to assure our country serves everyone fairly and lives up to the ideals that our flag represents.

It's about equality. It's about equity. It's about justice. It was never about the flag.

Erin Casey Pellegrino is Vice President of Communications, Events & Marketing at RISE, a national nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations by designing and executing programs and curriculum that equip athletes, students, coaches and administrators with the skills to be culturally competent and leaders for addressing racism, diversity and inclusion.

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