Leave Gabby Douglas Alone

Gabby Douglas at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Gabby Douglas at the 2016 Rio Olympics

In my first days as a Professional Military Educator, the flag made me
panic. At Convocation, the Marine Corps Band played the national
anthem. I stood up. Suddenly I noticed that my Dean and all civilians
in my view clapped their hands over their hearts on the first note. In
13 years of public school and countless sporting events, I had never
seen this before. I moved my hand to my heart by note four and hoped
no one noticed.

No one cared. Why? Because I had done nothing wrong. And neither did
Gabby Douglas when she did not place her hand over her heart at her
Olympic gold medal ceremony. Nor did President Obama, when he was
notoriously caught without his hand on his heart during the 2008
election, to much ado. Obama’s action (or inaction) spurred Congress
to amend the U.S. Flag Code, which stipulates conduct for U.S.
citizens during the national anthem, to say that U.S. citizens
”should” place their hands on their hearts when it plays. 

But the U.S. Flag Code does not apply outside the U.S. The law
explicitly specifies that local customs and etiquette apply elsewhere
in the world. Local customs and etiquette at the Olympics could mean
just about anything. For Michael Phelps, it meant laughter, for which
he was hardly criticized and even celebrated.

Even if the Olympics had been in the U.S., Douglas would have done
nothing wrong. The U.S. Flag Code governs civilian and military
conduct when the flag is displayed, during the pledge of allegiance,
and during the national anthem. It merely advises standing at
attention during the anthem. It says that civilians “should” place
their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. It even says
that civilians “should” place their hands over their hearts and stand
at attention when the flag is displayed. In all of these cases, the
language is advisory only.  The Flag Code requires only respect for
the flag.  Some of my students have criticized Douglas for “slouching”
and not standing at rigid attention as they have been trained.
However, it is hard to argue that Douglas, representing her country in
a U.S. Olympic uniform with a gold medal around her neck, went so far
as to disrespect the flag.

Douglas would have not received so much as a warning if she had not
placed her hand over her heart at a gymnastics competition in the U.S.
While violations of the Flag Code are technically punishable by law,
the Code is not enforced. Even if enforcement were possible, it would
be unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court precedent. If the First
Amendment protects burning the U.S. flag, then it surely protects the
right not to place one’s hand over one’s heart during the national

According to the Flag Code, the U.S. Olympic committee, most companies
who advertise during the Olympics, and most people who have ever
celebrated the Fourth of July have been more disrespectful than
Douglas. The Flag Code explicitly provides that “The flag should never
be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.  It should
never be printed on “paper napkins or boxes or anything that is
designed for temporary use and discard.”  So much for flag-festooned
paper plates and napkins at your next Fourth of July party. The Code
also states that “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume
or athletic uniform,” which would mean that most U.S. Olympic athletes
are not in compliance. The Code also specifies that the lapel pin, as
a replica of the flag, should be worn on the left lapel near the
heart.  If you don’t have a lapel, or have affixed the pin to a bag,
you have shown as much “disrespect” as Douglas.

Gabby Douglas embodies the American dream. She rose from poverty to
become an Olympic champion. She lifted her family out of poverty along
with her. She worked tremendously hard to represent her country as the
best of the best in her sport. Those who criticize her for not putting
her hand over her heart are not just wrong. They are hypocritical at
best and racist at worst.

Jill Goldenziel is Associate Professor at Marine Corps
University-Command and Staff College. The views expressed here are her
own and do not reflect those of her university or any other arm of the
U.S. government.

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