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Story highlights

Michael Caputo: It seems pretty normal to be offended by NFL players continuing to take the knee during the anthem

Players might not mean to offend combat veterans, but that's what is happening, Caputo says

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect spelling for Seth Meyers.

Editor’s Note: Michael R. Caputo is a Buffalo-based public affairs consultant, a talk radio host on WBEN-AM and CNN contributor. A longtime Republican campaign operative, he served as a senior adviser to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and George H.W. Bush. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

This entire NFL National Anthem protest story has been provocative, but I like it when I’m made to think.

On Sunday, watching my first Buffalo Bills game in the two weeks since the protests proliferated, I was proud of Vice President Mike Pence choosing to walk out of the Indianapolis Colts game after some of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee. 

Michael Caputo
Rod Lamkey Jr.
Michael Caputo

It made me think about the issue again, like I did after Seth Meyers talked about it on his “Late Night” show last month. Meyers made his point about his love of football – and support for the protesters – in a respectful manner, and he never once spoke of how veterans, combat veterans and families of the fallen should feel. Instead, he explained how he personally feels about NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem.

So, I appreciate the way he made his point. And I get it: The NFL players taking the knee don’t intend to offend combat veterans, the fallen and their families. But here’s what my experience tells me: To many people, they are doing exactly that, whether they intend to or not.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

Like Meyers, I feel really strongly about NFL football. As a boy, I lived with my mother in Ohio, but really missed my father back in Buffalo, even though he visited often. After all, he was my hero. And even though he wasn’t a huge NFL fan, as a native Buffalonian he instilled in me a love for the Bills.

So, the team was my connection to my father, and even though I had never attended an NFL game, I used to lay awake at night dreaming that my dad and I were watching a home game at Rich Stadium, just like he promised we would do one day.

One birthday, my dad bought me an official NFL puzzle of Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, No. 15 – a childhood (and current day) hero. The gift was always out on my bedroom desk, in some state of assembly. When I couldn’t sleep, I would take the pieces of my Kemp puzzle to bed with me, hide under the covers with a flashlight and put it together. I always slept better after putting the puzzle together.

At 14, I moved back home with my father and his new family in East Aurora, a Buffalo suburb. We didn’t go to Bills games, but we watched them every week on TV. Later, my dad and I moved to Orchard Park, the home of the Bills, around the corner from the Big Tree neighborhood. I jumped right into the Big Tree Boys, a gang of local toughs always looking for trouble. Orchard Park is nice, but across the railroad tracks by the stadium the Big Tree and Nanny Goat Hill areas could be a little rough-and-tumble. Kids from there – from the literal wrong side of the tracks – were nicknamed “Gaunches.”

My Gaunch friends, who lived next to the Bills’ stadium, always made good money on game days parking cars on their lawns. That became a feature in my life: Every home game, I helped my friends park cars in their Abbott Road yard. We’d sneak beers in the garage. Sometimes, a parker would flip us tickets and we’d catch a game.

By then, the Bills were everything to me, and no matter where I wandered, I always came home and dropped in on the parking lot for games. When I lived in Washington and worked as a writer for Jack Kemp (yeah, that was supercool), I’d come home some weekends and pretend I was helping park cars. When I worked overseas, I made it home to some games.

But that’s not my only connection to the anthem issue.

In high school, I enlisted in the Army and served in the 25th Infantry Division. I never went to war, but I served alongside some real heroes and grew deeply loyal to the service of those who fought and died. To me, as you might guess, the United States flag and National Anthem represent solemn reverence to combat veterans, the fallen and their families.

So to me, even as a lifelong football fan, it seems pretty normal to find something offensive about players continuing to take the knee during the anthem, especially after so many people have made clear how uncomfortable it makes them feel. After all, if you walk up to me and stomp on my foot, I’ll give you a pass if you say it was an accident. You don’t even have to apologize. But the second time you do it, I know that you know that you hurt my foot when you stomped on it. Yet you’ve chosen to hurt my foot again and again, so that speaks volumes about you.

I say all this while acknowledging that I can’t possibly understand a black man’s perspective on racial issues. So I try to be mindful of these matters and I respect the NFL players’ right to protest. In fact, there are some current and former players whose opinions on civil rights have helped shape mine over the years. But by the same reasoning, the majority of the kneelers must also acknowledge they cannot understand the perspective on the flag and National Anthem of a combat veteran. Yet still, they kneel.

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In 2014, with the help of Donald Trump, my friend Chuck Sonntag and I got a group of Big Tree Boys together to organize fans to help keep the Bills in Buffalo. We started Bills Fan Thunder, and we played a small public role in saving our team. Today, with Charlie Pellien as the leader, BFT is a nonprofit children’s charity, and we take up to 20 at-risk youth and their guardians to every single home game. So, maybe I don’t get how an NFL player feels about race. But I’m trying to understand, and I really want those inner city kids to see the Bills game I never saw.

Still, I didn’t watch the game last week – I left the lot after many of the Bills players knelt the week before. And even though I won’t boycott the NFL, I am rethinking things at this point. I cannot imagine how I could ever stop rooting for the Buffalo Bills over the actions of a few players in a time of political upheaval. But on this issue, I have to stand with my brothers who served in combat. I stand with the wife of my friend killed in action, who abhors politics, but who is deeply and terribly wounded by all this. 

I get it, Seth. We’re talking past each other. But for what it’s worth, I also don’t agree with the people who tell me I am duty bound to boycott my team. They don’t get it, either, because they didn’t live, eat and breathe the Buffalo Bills like I have since I was a boy, under that blanket, flashlight in hand, missing my dad, building my Jack Kemp No. 15 puzzle again to help me sleep.