Justin Cliburn has turned to his fantasy football brothers during his life’s darkest time.
Cliburn and more than 40 former and current military members annually compete in the OklahomIraqis League (OIL), an Iraq War veteran community founded by United States soldiers from Oklahoma in 2006. As fantasy football blossomed into the Internet era, the original goal of the group was healthy distraction while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That transcended into a brotherhood post-deployment that Zachary Jessen, the founder of the league, described as “a big therapy group with fantasy (football) as a cover.”
Cliburn, who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Oklahoma Army National Guard, is the commissioner of the league. He experiences symptoms of post-traumatic stress and lost his brother and nieces to a murder-suicide around this time last year.
“All the guys were there for me after that. For a group of adult ‘manly men’ to have a large community of friends you can lean on, it’s helped save lives in our group,” Cliburn said. “It’s kind of this unspoken bond, and the camaraderie of the fantasy league is the conduit to that – where you can call someone to connect talking about football but in reality you are having a bad mental health day. Avoiding that isolation stops you from thinking about hurting yourself.”
But this year many of the league’s members have felt conflicted by the message some NFL players have put forth when kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice and police brutality. Several members have said they won’t watch the NFL, although they’ll still update their fantasy roster.
At the fantasy league’s draft this year, held at Konawa, Oklahoma, with a majority of the OIL members, Cliburn said he once again was an outlier as a liberal in a group of Trump-supporting Republicans. As such, he’s often on the minority side of debates about the protests started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 – which were amplified this season as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This year, several different demonstrations have taken place during the national anthem including players both kneeling and standing, with some locking arms while wearing social justice shirts. Each NFL team has taken its own approach. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, all knelt in unison for Week 1, whereas only one player on the Dallas Cowboys – Dontari Poe – knelt. The Miami Dolphins stayed in the locker room during the anthem, opting to release a video instead.
In the NBA, all but two players knelt during the season’s first games among 22 teams at the restart in August.
President Donald Trump has lambasted the protests as “disrespecting the flag” throughout his presidency. In 2017, more than 200 NFL players knelt in response to Trump’s rant at a rally calling on owners to “fire” protesting players.
Jessen said he supports the message several athletes are advocating. But nonetheless he feels disrespected and hurt when he sees the kneeling after serving from 2001 to 2013 for the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
“It pisses me off, I won’t lie,” Jessen said. “But what we did when we joined the military was take an oath to defend the Constitution so we fight for the right for Americans to express that right to protest. I just don’t think it’s the right way of protesting. The kneeling has caused a lot of divide. I wish there was a better approach.
“I personally feel like if any NFL player served their country, they wouldn’t (kneel). There’s a feeling attached to the flag you can’t erase.”
Cliburn said when he hears the anthem he gets “goosebumps” and can grasp how veterans feel a sense of disrespect and revulsion when they see kneeling. But as a lawyer at the Center for Education Law in Oklahoma City, he said he is trained not to see through a lens of emotion.
“I personally support the players with their freedom of speech,” Cliburn said. “I understand the context and know that they’re not protesting the flag. (NFL) players are protesting very serious issues in their community that a lot of us cannot understand, they’re using kneeling as a vehicle for change. (Protesting) has been tried many other ways, but never got people’s attention the way it is now.”
Fantasy football and NFL fandom are closely related, and according to Rick Wolf, president of Fantasy Alarm Sports Network, military members have been among the greatest followers in the Internet era. He said a significant portion of his customers use a military discount and his fantasy sports radio show will always move their veteran guest ahead of other guests because they served in the military.
Ulysses Henderson, a police officer who is another longtime member of the OIL League, said that playing fantasy sports only enhanced his fandom as a die-hard Cowboys fan. But he has felt turned away by the message of kneeling during the anthem.
“I can see how it would be a deal-breaker for some,” Henderson said. “A lot of us want football to be an escape to get away from all the issues that are out there and things we are going through personally. On the other hand, sports is a microcosm for life. I just don’t like the idea of the kneeling being the focal point over football.
“Even if the intent is good, it has a lot to do with how it is perceived, which to me is disrespect. The most hurtful part is that the message (of kneeling) can offend a group of people so easily and our feelings aren’t taken into a account. If you have the right to protest, I have the right as a (veteran) to be hurt by that protest.”
Cliburn adds: “The problem is it’s a polarizing issue and it can very easily become me vs. them. It doesn’t have to be that way, but at the end of the day, the flag we defend values right to free speech and individual differences. That is what I will always stand for.”
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