The anthem debate rages in the heart of Trump and Cowboys country

CANTON, Tex. — In a state-of-the-art sports bar alongside Interstate 20 about an hour east of Dallas on Monday night, there came the oddest non-sound: a silence that began to seem loud. It came from 14 different tables and the crowded bar area. It filled the room as only silence can, and it lasted all the way through the national anthem being played through the screens from Arizona. It featured bar patrons who had been chattering or studying phones, their faces rapt with what looked like a mix of curiosity and respect.

It ended when the anthem ended, and with a booming cheer.

The silence and the cheer came in a county that pretty much loves both President Trump and the National Football League, those two entities that have clashed since Trump’s speech in Alabama last Friday night lambasting NFL players who have been kneeling during the national anthem to protest mistreatment of people of color.

Regarding Trump, Van Zandt County bestowed him a 71-percent margin of victory over Hillary Clinton last November. Regarding the NFL, an inherited Dallas Cowboys fandom often courses through local bloodstreams, alongside the love of Canton High Eagles football, which revealed itself with a throwback scene that unspooled Monday night: the Homecoming parade through the picturesque town square led by, yes, a firetruck.

The whole, loud NFL weekend ended Monday night with the Cowboys at the Arizona Cardinals, and normally the pregame at Duke’s Burgers & Sports Co. would have resembled pre-games in sports bars across the land: with patrons milling about and not particularly noticing the national anthem. Yet in a well-conceived joint where veterans get a 15-percent discount and the walls include a signed Dez Bryant jersey amid other Cowboys memorabilia, everyone clearly wanted to know what would happen before kickoff.

An unfounded rumor had circulated on the Internet since last year that owner Jerry Jones had ordered his Cowboys to stand for the national anthem.

At first, when Jones and the Cowboys knelt on most of the 12 screens in Duke’s, a sole boo did boom from the bar, and faces did seem startled.

Then, when Jones and the Cowboys stood with interlocking arms for the entirety of Jordin Sparks’ rendition of the anthem derived from Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem, the place went wordless.

At the end of the bar, Jimi Deckard, a vice president of an electrical company and a non-hippie named by his hippie father for Jimi Hendrix, said, “It was a shock to see them kneel before, but then to see them stand was pretty empowering.” Near him, Sammy Ward, a Dallas-based Cowboys fan from Manchester, England, in Canton for its First Monday trading market, chimed in that it showed Jones’s desire to “appease the world.”

“We’re absolutely apolitical here,” said Duke’s vice president and general counsel Rami Zoubi, a Dallas-born-and-raised, Texas A&M Aggie born to a father from Irbid in northern Jordan and a mother from Eupora in northeastern Mississippi, and whose father, Joe, owns the bar. “If we have one customer with a Trump hat and one customer with a Hillary Clinton hat, they get the same damned good burger.” There’s even that leaner option, bison.

There’s also, if wagering on the matter, probably a better chance of a Trump hat.

‘Disrespecting the flag’

In Canton, the county seat, a major intersection boasts the dramatic sight of a war plane that helps memorialize veterans. A Bible verse on a banner helps decorate a ranch fence. A vegetable stand on one edge of town has its fresh okra and its newly arriving pumpkins. A tidy travel plaza next to Duke’s has a “knife shop” in the back for outdoor gear and an easygoing woman at the counter handing over the change and advising, “Be safe out there.” City-limit signs show a population of 3,581. It’s a place where cows and horses huddle under trees for shade and a gigantic cross sprouts from the front yard of a Baptist church.

Historical markers by the courthouse note Isaac Van Zandt (1811-47), a former ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Texas, as well as John H. Reagan (1811-1905), who served as postmaster general for the Confederacy, then went to prison, then got elected to Congress and the Senate, and once “helped deliver a message from Texas President Mirabeau Lamar to the Cherokees, threatening force if the tribe did not move north of the Red River.” In August, University of Texas officials had his statue removed from the Austin campus.

Hear the citizens of Canton and nearby towns such as Fruitvale, Van, Kaufman and Grand Saline, and you might hear variation. A supporter of the NFL players’ silent protests during the anthem might say she’s vastly outnumbered. Jimi Deckard might take a measured view and say of Van Zandt County, “It’s fifty-fifty. It really is. Some people are all for it, some people say it’s a disgrace.”

In the bar, by afternoon, there’s a soccer match, La Liga from Spain, Real Betis carving up Levante on the big screen, smaller screens that show Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James and San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich making comments during NBA media days on Monday. Near the cash register are a Cowboys schedule and a sheet of paper describing how people can donate to Hurricane Harvey relief. A manager, Joshua Tave, tells of how three tornadoes tore through Canton on April 29, and how NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders has a house nearby, loves to fish and stops in occasionally at Duke’s. At the end of the bar sits Nelson Whitaker, who manages this and other properties, and who served in the United States Air Force from 1976-80, in San Antonio.

As well, Whitaker belongs to a group of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard Riders, who assist with transporting the remains of fallen soldiers. They recently held a ceremony as the remains of Capt. Raymond Clark Snapp, identified with DNA technology, made their way from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport toward Shreveport, La., 74 years after his death in World War II in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific.

“As far as these overpaid pro athletes disrespecting our country, it just makes me sick,” Whitaker said. He’s a fairly regular NFL watcher who envisions watching less regularly. “Right now, you know, these athletes that are on the public stage, the world stage, and disrespecting the flag and the country, I couldn’t care less about watching it now.”

He said, “When I saw what was going on, and the wide disrespect, from full teams, you know, not partaking in the national anthem as it plays before games, stuff like, that, it really, it set bad on me. Because for as long as we’ve been a country, people have fought for the freedom of the country, and they’re disrespecting that. They’re able to do that and make the money that they make because of the people that have fought for the freedom of this country. Personally, I’d like to see them go to another country and pull it.

“I like it when the players were out there: both teams, on the sidelines, standing up, hand over heart, when the anthem is being played. I honestly think that 99 percent of the veterans out there would say the same thing, because they’re not just disrespecting the anthem. In my opinion, they’re disrespecting everyone that’s serving now, and everyone that has served before that.”

‘The right to express yourself’

Into town, the early evening held the promise of the Homecoming parade. People waited by cars and trucks. As a beacon of a small-town life often deemed overlooked during the 2016 presidential campaign, the parade did not disappoint, beginning with the firetruck. It had children in football shirts seated on hay bales on a float, a Little Miss Van Zandt in a convertible, a procession of “duchesses” from the various school classes in the Homecoming procession, some queen nominees, players seated around the edges of a flatbed trailer with cheerleaders cheering above them, even a float with a motif to Vanilla Ice’s 1990 smash, “Ice, Ice Baby.”

Mike Hale, who lives seven miles away in Fruitvale and manages the Whataburger in Canton, had happened by the parade with a friend, some 13 years after he spent February-October 2004 in Iraq, at Camp Korean Village, near the Syrian border, with the Marines.

“As far as the anthem thing, I think that we live in a free country, and I think that you have the right to express yourself, and the Constitution states that you do,” he said. “I don’t agree with it [the method of protest]. I don’t like it. I think that if you’re an American citizen, a professional athlete, especially in a country that pretty much is about the only country that football matters, I don’t see how you can disrespect our flag on a national stage, because you’ve been given that opportunity by this country to go out there and make that kind of money. That’s where I’m feeling.”

But he also said, “I get it, man. I mean, I get it. If I made millions of dollars and people wanted to hear what I had to say and I felt strongly about something, I’d probably use that stage to get my opinion across.”

At work Monday, after the NFL weekend that became the talk of the nation, Hale said, “I actually had the conversation with a friend of mine that I work with before I came up here. He’s like, ‘Dude, I’m ready to turn it off.’ He’s like, ‘I’m so sick of seeing it.’ He was like, ‘I would rather just not watch it at all than have to hear about this.’ Because, I mean, the anthem thing, it’s been going on for about a year and a half, with [Colin] Kaepernick. I feel sorry for that dude. He lost his job over it. He’s being blackballed. That’s my opinion. I mean, teams are just like, ‘We’re just not gonna deal with that.’”

Still, he said, “I really do see people turning it off, I mean, especially in these little rural communities like this, where you’re still preaching to your kids the importance of the flag and the value of respecting the president of the United States and the people that serve our country whether we agree with them or not. I think a lot of them have just got a bad taste in their mouth and they see a bunch of spoiled little rich kids running around.”

An hour later, a bar full of people awaited the game — and the pregame. The Zoubis, father and son, were present, and Rami Zoubi, the Aggie, would joke about how painful it had been to buy a Texas Longhorns flag for the bar, but that given Texas’ fate of recent football seasons, “It’s been easy to get a Longhorn flag at a discount.” At the end of the bar, Deckard said he did find it enlightening when former Dallas quarterback Babe Laufenberg said on the radio that for African Americans, the NFL provides a rare forum of visibility.

On one matter, everyone agreed: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s somersault into the end zone to open Dallas’ scoring got raging cheers.

At halftime, Lacey Stark, a young, lifelong Cowboys fan who went to high school in nearby Van, told of her experiences from a choice vantage point: In Canton, she owns a hair salon. She also aims to make her salon a beacon of the mingling of the races.

Of the NFL players kneeling, she said, “A lot of people here take offense to it. They think that it’s very disrespectful. However, I’m very different from that. I feel like a lot of people complain that a lot of celebrities don’t use their fame to do something about the problems in the world, and I think it’s a good platform for them to try to bring a lot of different unity. Whatever they can. This is what they can do. It’s bringing a lot of tension, so it’s bringing a lot of conversation. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, because out on the field, they’re not laughing at it, they’re not disrespecting it. They’re just kneeling. They’re not ignoring it. They’re just kneeling. So I don’t find it disrespectful.”

She said that, crucially, she had witnessed often the kind racial profiling the players protest. “I’ve been in the car with someone where they’ve gotten pulled over for absolutely no reason and asked to step out of the car,” she said. “I witnessed it. I’ve witnessed a lot of it. So, I know. Unless you’ve dealt with it, unless you’ve seen it, you’re not going to support it.”

She said, “One of my biggest goals, when I took over the salon, was bringing in more diversity and not having the separation, where white people go in here, and black people go in here, and Mexicans go in there, Asians go in there. So my goal is to bring everybody together because everybody’s the same. So why not bring in the togetherness that small towns don’t have?”

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