As the American people continue their collective freakout over National Football League players taking a knee in silent protest during the pre-game national anthem, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has one thing on his mind: Doing his motherfucking job.
During a brief session with reporters aboard a flight to India on Sept. 25, Mattis was asked if he, as perhaps the most visible military leader within the Trump administration, had any thoughts on whether professional athletes who refuse to stand for the American flag — meant to convey an unwillingness “[to] show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick explained in 2016 — constitutes disrespect for active-duty servicemembers and veterans who put their lives on the line to protect their First Amendment rights to free speech.
“I’m the Secretary of Defense,” Mattis responded. “We defend the country.”
This is a great response — I’m too busy doing my duty to the country to give a shit about a bunch of whiny snowflakes on any damn side — and another instant nominee for the Mattisism pantheon.
But! It’s not totally accurate. A 2015 government oversight report compiled by Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the Department of Defense shelled out more than $53 million for “marketing and advertising contracts” with sports organizations between 2012 and 2015, the majority of which (72 out of 122 contracts) were for “patriotic Tributes” that included enlistment ceremonies, on-field color guards and, yes, salutes to the American flag during the national anthem. While the latter is certainly a tradition at American sporting events regardless of Pentagon funding, the “paid patriotism” suggests that Mattis’s completely relatable brush-off is also a bit of an artful dodge.
Despite the DoD’s commercial history with pro-sports’ not-so-spontaneous patriotism-fests, Mattis’s eight-word response perfectly captures the qualities that make him such a remarkable contrast to the mercurial commander-in-chief. While Trump, who received several draft deferments for military service in the Vietnam War, has spent what feels like every recent waking moment threatening the NFL (and North Korea!) over issues of patriotism and respect, Mattis is exemplifying the discipline and focus that the sudden Marine occupation of the White House was expected to yield.
When Mattis responds to a question with “I’m Secretary of Defense,” what he really means is this: “I have other, better sh*t to focus on” — and chances are, you do too.