During the first college football game of the season this fall, I had to nudge my 6-year-old son to take off his hat during the national anthem.

As we stood with the rest of the crowd, he begrudgingly took off his Georgia Southern ball cap and placed his hand over his heart, giving me an inquisitive look of “Why?”

It’s not often my boy wears ball caps. It’s also not often that we go places where you hear the national anthem. But standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem is, for many of us, like bowing your head when you pray. It’s something done out of respect and out of tradition. It’s just something that is done, no questions asked — even when you’re a 6-year-old attending a college football game.

Debate has raged during the last week after President Donald Trump criticized former NFL player Colin Kaepernick and others like him who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustices in the U.S.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’” Trump said Sept. 22 during a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.

In response, NFL teams across the country linked arms with their owners during the national anthem last Sunday. Some knelt, some stood, some teams didn’t take the field until after the anthem was over. Some players chose to remain standing, but put their hands on their kneeling teammates shoulders as a sign of support.

Some fans, meanwhile, have booed or even taken to social media to post videos of them burning their season tickets or team gear as a sign of their disgust, stating that the athletes should never disrespect the flag or America in such a way — that kneeling is “un-American.”

But I would argue, kneeling is an act of subservience, or desperation, an act that proclaims it is not OK that there is racism and injustice in this country. The athletes are not protesting the flag itself. They are not burning the flag or giving it the finger. Instead, they are kneeling in subservience — much the same way that former NFL Quarterback Tim Tebow knelt on the field in prayer — in hopes that it will make a difference.

Our constitution protects the right to free speech. I would argue that the athletes kneeling in an act of protest is just as American as the flag itself. Free speech is a cornerstone of our society, something that should be defended and protected. Just as former NFL fans have every right to burn their tickets in protest, so do the athletes have the right to take a knee on that field.

It’s something that was protected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which protected people’s choice not to salute the flag. At that time, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote that the freedom means that those in power allow others to think for themselves.

“Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men,” Jackson wrote. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”

Don’t agree with the athlete’s’ decision to kneel during the anthem? Then don’t watch the games. Want to stand up during the anthem and take off your ball cap, then please do — you have that right — just as the athletes have the right to kneel.

It’s called free speech.

— Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com.