Years ago I remember standing backstage at a political event where we were both speaking and having a private conversation with then Congressman Mike Pence. The subject of our brief exchange was the playoff prospects of our beloved Indianapolis Colts. The Congressman, while mired in all the daily duties of a Washington lawmaker, was a fan.
I recalled that conversation when I heard that now Vice President Mike Pence was planning to be present at Lucas Oil Stadium this last week when the Colts officially retired the jersey of Peyton Manning. Remembering how Pence described Manning as the "man who made Indianapolis," it was hardly surprising that he would want to be in attendance when The Sheriff was immortalized in bronze and in the Colts' Ring of Honor.
As everyone now knows, the Vice President's homecoming was cut short when a number of the visiting 49ers players continued the pregame publicity stunt of kneeling while everyone else stands to respect the country's flag and anthem. Pence left after that display and offered this explanation:
"I left today's Colts game because [President Trump] and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem ... While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don't think it's too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem."
The reaction was largely predictable: fans who have grown tired of the political theater conducted by protesting players each week applauded Pence, while social justice warriors and the notoriously liberal world of sports media condemned him.
For its part, the hometown Indy Star – never hesitant to pan Pence – blasted the Vice President in a procession of articles, tweets, and interviews.
Opinion editor Tim Swarens, along with sports columnists Zac Keefer, Stephen Holder, and Gregg Doyel all wrote disparaging remarks about Pence's obvious political stunt; the latter even parlaying his objections into a little political theater of his own, appearing on CNN twice to protest Pence's protest of the protest.
And that's why, as well spoken as all these reporters are, I find myself respectfully disagreeing with them on this issue. It seems the height of intellectual inconsistency to spend weeks defending and applauding players who generate publicity for their cause by engaging in an action that is distracting and offensive to many people, but then turn around and cast reproach upon a Vice President generating publicity for his cause by engaging in an action that you found distracting and offensive.
Isn't it fair to ask why some publicity stunts are more equal than others?
Radio host Tony Katz took to Twitter to ask Mr. Holder that very question, wondering if it qualifies as a publicity stunt when players kneel. Holder dismissed him by writing back, "Probably to you, because you either aren't listening to them or don't care. Good day."
That's an unfortunate response if the desired objective is to generate dialogue between groups that are largely talking past one another. After all, the same thing could be said of those criticizing the Vice President right now: they either aren't listening to Pence when he explains why he left, or they don't care.
Remember that Pence's walkout mirrored the precise action that countless fans have done physically in stadiums or remotely on their televisions this year. They're tuning out and walking out on the NFL, just like Pence exemplified. If you claim to want a dialogue, you can't simultaneously pretend that these voices shouldn't be heard equally.
Objections about how Pence should have known the 49ers would kneel are immaterial, as are complaints about the cost to taxpayers. Both are highly suspect anyway – the planning for his trip commenced long before the renewed kneeling protests began and was selected not because of the opponent but because of the Manning festivities; and travel records actually show that the stop in Indy saved the greater expense of returning to D.C. before flying to Los Angeles the next day.
Those complaints are merely an attempt to move the goalposts by those who are unwilling to acknowledge this common sense reality: if you don't want anyone telling players they have to stand for the anthem, you shouldn't be telling the Vice President that he has to stay for the game. Both are political protests, and one is not any more legitimate than the other.