Words matter. Two words that matter a great deal right now are “patriotism” and “racism,” the critical concepts surrounding NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem. Thanks to Donald Trump’s incendiary criticism of that activity, the heated issue got much hotter last weekend.

The dispute originated last summer when one player, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the anthem during a pre-season football game because “there are [black] bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

“This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice,” he added, “people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”

Kaepernick’s kneel-down was subsequently replicated by other NFL players — most of them black — to support the cause. These acts, however, were considered “unpatriotic” by many.

“There is a time and place for civil debate, and wearing team jerseys and using sporting events to disrespect our country doesn’t wash with millions of military veterans who have and continue to wear real uniforms on real battlefields around the globe,” said VFW’s national commander Keith Harman.

Donald Trump stoked the fire last week with these decidedly unpresidential words: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’”

But what is “patriotism”? Does it really mean standing for the national anthem as an unadulterated display of reverence for your country? If so, do most Americans understand how sports leagues, including the NFL, have essentially appropriated pre-game rituals for their own benefit and are paid millions by the federal government to stage pageants of “patriotism”?

“The NFL is reimbursing U.S. taxpayers more than $720,000 in so-called ‘paid patriotism’ money that the teams took from the military to allow things like color guard displays and video tributes at pro football games,” NBC News reported last year.

In total, NBC News reported that the Pentagon had — “inappropriately,” according to Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake — paid up to $6.8 million to both professional and college sports teams “to allow rah-rah patriotic displays and performance at games.”

This is not patriotism. Patriotism means exercising your right to vote. So why did nearly half of all eligible citizens neglect to vote — refuse to stand up, essentially — during the 2016 presidential election, a privilege our soldiers have fought and died for? Patriotism also means speaking out for veterans’ rights. So why didn’t more private citizens stand up and criticize Trump’s proposed cuts to military veterans before the plan was ultimately scrapped? Doing so would have exemplified the same right to free speech employed by Colin Kaepernick.

Words like “patriotism” matter. And “patriotism” means much more than wrapping yourself in the flag.

Words like “racism” also matter. How, for example, does one explain the current kneel-down controversy without acknowledging the issue’s racist connotations?

NFL football games provide a fitting audience to protest racial injustices in America, considering the racial imbalance of a league with 70 percent black players and 77 percent white fans. No wonder NFL owners and players emphatically supported Kaepernick’s constitutional right to free speech this past weekend.

“Our players are intelligent, thoughtful, and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully effect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a typical statement.

Still, a significant divide remains. While 74 percent of black NFL fans join the majority of NFL players and owners in supporting the players’ right to kneel, 63 percent of white fans do not.

In the end, words matter. And “racism” absolutely matters here. Let there be no doubt: Racism — from the subtle to the explicit — is at the heart of both Kaepernick’s original protest and the national response to it.

Patriotism. Racism. Words that matter. If only we all could agree that the ultimate expression of patriotism in America would be to eradicate racism in America.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.