Among the many issues facing Texans, whether professional football players kneel or stand for the national anthem might not be the most pressing.
But, for several days running, it has been the focus of the heated race between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, the three-term congressman from El Paso — and the candidates are drawing sharp contrasts.
In the latest development, popular daytime TV host Ellen DeGeneres said Tuesday she’s invited O’Rourke on her show after seeing a video of O’Rourke explaining why he supports National Football League players who kneel in protest while the national anthem plays before games.
“See you September 5th, @BetoORourke,” DeGeneres said in a Twitter post.
That four-minute, 11-second video of O’Rourke answering a question from a man who said he came from a family of veterans — do you find the players’ protests disrespectful? — at an Aug. 10 Houston town hall event, put to background music by left-leaning media company NowThis, has been viewed 25 million times on Facebook and 18 million times on Twitter since it was posted a week ago.
The players, O’Rourke said, were rightfully calling attention to the deaths of unarmed African-Americans “at a frightening level right now,” including by law enforcement, “without accountability and without justice.”
“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights anytime, anywhere, any place,” O’Rourke told the audience to applause.
Celebrities shared the video, including basketball great LeBron James, who called it a “must watch.”
Cruz, who last year called the protesting players “rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag,” seized on the issue at a campaign stop in Corpus Christi this month, saying he can think of something “more American,” referencing how everyone at the military bases he’s visited salute the flag. On Monday, his campaign issued a video deriding O’Rourke’s remarks.
Commenting on the celebrity reception to O’Rourke’s comments, the narrator in the advertisement says, “Liberal Hollywood was thrilled, but do Texans agree?”
“Who ever believed that we would have issues about whether you’re going to stand during the national anthem,” retired Marine Sgt. Tim Lee says in footage of him at an event.
“Tim Lee, a Texan, served in Vietnam. On March 8, 1971, he stepped on a land mine,” the narrator says.
“I gave two legs for this country,” Lee continues. “I’m not able to stand, but I sure expect you to stand for me when that national anthem is being played.”
“In November, where will you stand?” the narrator says.
Jim Henson and Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas said in a blog entry last week that the back-and-forth over the issue was unlikely to help O’Rourke, who is trailing Cruz in the low single digits, according to several recent polls.
“While mobilizing Democrats with high-profile comments like the ones gaining him national attention will help, it’s unlikely to do much to persuade Republicans or independents, given their attitudes on issues likely to form the context of their reception of O’Rourke’s comments,” they wrote.
O’Rourke told reporters Monday at a campaign event in Northeast Austin he appreciates differing opinions on the issue.
“I’m grateful to those who call attention to the things that we must change,” he said. “I’m grateful to those who come to a different conclusion on this issue and express their First Amendment right to say that they wish the NFL players would do this in a different way. But inherently all of this is American, right? We can have this debate, this discussion, ultimately a dialogue, and make things better by listening to and working with one another and seeing someone as no less American for their views or the way in which they express them.”
President Donald Trump has weighed in on the issue numerous times, calling for football players to be suspended or fired for protesting during the anthem. He escalated the issue during a Sept. 22, 2017, rally in Huntsville, Ala., by using profanity.
“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,’” said Trump, whom some players also have protested.
Vice President Mike Pence, more than a year after anthem protests began, left an Oct. 8, 2017, game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, after members of the 49ers knelt as the anthem played. Members of the Colts weeks before had knelt during the anthem. Critics called Pence’s departure a publicity stunt.
“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,” Pence, a former Indiana governor, said in a statement, according to NPR.
Trump later said he asked Pence to leave the game if any player knelt.
American-Statesman staff writer Ken Herman contributed to this report.