On Sunday night, Atlanta welcomed the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots at the recently opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium. However, the Super Bowl festivities were underlined by controversy over issues much larger than unfair referees or deflated footballs.

Since then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest the unjust killings of innocent people and racial inequality in general, the NFL has been tied to the police brutality faced by the African-American community. Further, Kaepernick spurred a debate over the intersection of politics and sports by saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Ironically enough, it is this flag that represents Kaepernick’s right to express his beliefs. The flag may symbolize different things for different people, yet one of the foundational elements of both the United States and its flag is the notion of democracy. But without freedom of expression, there can be no democracy. There is supposed to be constant conversation between the government and its people, and without a safe environment in which everyone can share their beliefs without persecution, that conversation cannot exist. A citizen, in this case, Kaepernick, has spoken up — albeit not in the most respectful way. The flag is a symbolic representation of what our nation stands for; refusing to even simply stand up for the same beliefs that veterans have sacrificed their lives for, is not exactly the best way to express gratitude for the freedom of expression we have today.

However, just because protest is disrespectful does not mean it is not valid. Yet, President Donald J. Trump has been actively trying to shut down the conversation. In September 2017, Trump tweeted, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag.”

“Should not be allowed.” People are allowed to disrespect what they do not believe is worthy of respect — that’s freedom of expression. It doesn’t matter where you work or how much money you make. As long as you are in the U.S., you are protected by your First Amendment rights.

Granted, the NFL is its own private organization also well-protected under the First Amendment right. Each team can decide to sign or refrain from signing players who decide to take their political beliefs onto the field. Spectators also have the right to change the channel if they don’t want to watch someone else’s opinions.

However, politics is not just about government. It’s about real life issues, which are not separated into boxes that fit neatly within lines — or TV channels. They bleed into one another, and if someone has the opportunity to raise awareness about an issue, they will inevitably seize it.

Not signing a player onto a team (if he has the skill), changing the channel or even boycotting the NFL because someone else’s concerns seem offensive prevents productive conversations. Regardless of the reason for boycotting, stepping out of the picture entirely provides no contribution to the conversation.

While tensions grow between those who use the NFL as an outlet for political activism and those who want sports to be strictly about sports, the Super Bowl will no longer remain solely the culmination of mere athletic competition; it will become the peak of political dissidence as well. The NFL should not shy away from important conversations we as a society need to have — it should take pride in kicking off an era where race relations and issues are addressed instead of swept under the rug.

Grace Yang (22C) is from Vancouver, Wash.