Edited from a Press Release
Secretary of State Mac Warner Weighs In on NFL Controversy Involving the National Anthem
Chaos Theory and Leadership
By Mac Warner, West Virginia Secretary of State

A butterfly flaps its wings in New Mexico causing a hurricane in China – so goes “the butterfly effect.” It’s a dramatic example of chaos theory wherein our world goes nonlinear. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes the results are bad.


We are now in the midst of a national chaos moment, and where it stops one can only guess; but indications are, it won’t be good. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee in San Francisco causing a Hurricane Harvey in the National Football League (NFL).

The sad thing is, this one was preventable. The antidote: leadership.

During my Army career, I witnessed two of the most catastrophic butterfly effects the world has known. The first was in 1979 when 52 U.S. diplomats in Tehran were held hostage for 444 days. Then-President Jimmy Carter did not recognize the volatility of the situation, and spent months hand-wringing before authorizing an ill-fated rescue attempt. Ayatollah Khomeini sensed Carter’s paralysis, and exploited the President’s weakness to humiliate the greatest country and military force on the face of the earth. President Ronald Reagan, with a reputation for restoring American greatness, resolved the crisis within hours of taking office. Everyone knew the military option was on the table; Iran released the hostages on Inauguration Day, 1981.

But, the forces of Islamic fundamentalism had been unleashed on the world. Shi'ism had been underground for 1,500 years, surviving under the shadow of its much larger Sunni brother. When a few Shia students “flapped their wings” and stormed the embassy in Tehran, it first seemed but a minor diplomatic annoyance. The students admitted later they intended to hold the hostages for only a few days, but a breakdown in U.S. leadership across the globe led to an emboldened Shia spirit. 

Khomeini used the hostage crisis to solidify his grip on Iran, and proclaimed it time for Shias to assume their rightful place at the helm of the Muslim world. Fascinatingly, the whole affair became known as the Islamic Revolution, not the Iranian Revolution. Not only did Ayatollah Khomeini take on the United States, he turned the Islamic world on its head. Within a year, Iraq and Iran were at war, Saudi Arabia faced an existential threat, and the Middle East became a boiling cauldron ready to explode. Today, the cauldron is still boiling and the hurricane is still blowing in the form of ISIS, Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, Al Quds, and many other terrorist splinter groups. Had Carter acted decisively, we would have a completely different world today.

The second nonlinear catastrophic butterfly effect sprung out of the first. Osama bin Laden watched then-President Reagan – yes, the man elected to restore American greatness – pull out of Lebanon after 241 Marines were killed in Beirut. On October 23, 1983, Islamic Jihad, a front for Iranian Hezbollah, used two trucks loaded with explosives to attack the U.S. Marine and French military barracks housing Multi-National Peacekeeping Forces. Peacekeeping rules of engagement at the time prevented sentries from locking and loading rounds in their chambers, allowing the intruders to drive right past the guards.

But, like Carter before him, Reagan failed to respond in a timely manner; in fact, he cut and ran. While Reagan was hailed at the time for recognizing it was a mistake to enter Lebanon in the first place, the unintended consequence led an unknown son of a Saudi construction millionaire to ponder. Osama soon took up arms in Afghanistan against the Russians, and then witnessed another U.S. President, Bill Clinton, pull out of Somalia when a Blackhawk was shot down in Mogadishu. 

Osama saw weakness in the lackluster response to the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing, and a similar failure to respond to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. When questioned about the motivation for taking down the WTC Towers on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden stated his inspiration was the collapsed towers in Beirut…1983. He saw what Americans dying in bombed buildings on Palestinian soil could do, and he wondered what would happen if Americans felt that same pain at home. He saw a “paper tiger” across the sea. The wings fluttered in Beirut, and the WTC collapsed 18 years later in NYC.

The connection in all this to a flap over taking a knee in the NFL? Vision and leadership. Chaos theory from student antics in 1979 led to terrorists emboldened around the world, releasing an evil genie that now cannot be put back in its bottle. Had Carter taken quick, decisive action, the Islamic Revolution would have probably never occurred. Had Reagan not cut and run, Osama bin Laden may have never harbored a vision of collapsed buildings on U.S. soil. Failed U.S. leadership led to unintended consequences far beyond where linear thinking would take us.

Today, we are in the midst of our own storm. While the apparent stakes seem comparatively inconsequential – sports franchises’ profit margins or declining ratings – chaos theory tells us to expect the unexpected, especially given today’s deep political divide and tinderbox-like international relations.

Until now, sports fields have been places to exhibit talent, teamwork, and dedication. Athletics have mostly been places free from politics and other distractions, a relief valve for like-minded sports enthusiasts, irrespective of political, religious, economic or other affiliations. It is the role of leaders to keep them that way, or lose the base on which they thrive. America loves football, and the NFL has been the epitome of all sports. If there had been any doubt, the 1994 Major League Baseball strike (its own butterfly effect and chaos moment) solidified the NFL as America’s premier sport and league. 

Vision is the ability to recognize potential, and leadership is charting a course to maximize that potential. For most of its existence, the NFL has had vision and leadership. The NFL’s very logo is a take on the American flag with a field of blue with white stars and red NFL letters on a white background. They built their brand on Americana: hard work, professionalism, heritage, and patriotism. Virtually nothing appeared to be more American than the NFL, complete with strong leadership that developed the League into a business juggernaut with the best players at the top level of the Nation’s favorite game. Kids and grown-ups alike have looked to the NFL for their heroes. Until now. 

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had his “Carter moment” back when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee before the election in 2016. The League has policies dictating what socks players can wear to what they should do during the National Anthem. Goodell should have directed owners to enforce League policies, and never let the anti-patriotism genie out of the bottle. Now, the NFL’s soft underpinning and disrespect to the very flag that symbolizes American values, freedoms, and opportunity has been revealed. The NFL will never be the same.

Knee-taking advocates claim, “This isn't about disrespecting troops or the flag, it's about social injustice.” Even if this were true of every protester, it is certainly not the message being received. Instead, the cumulative argument is one of feelings and emotions, two things with which logic and truth cannot contend. This is true on both sides. Those who have fought for the flag; whose family members’ coffins have been draped by the flag; who have risked life and limb to come from third-world countries to start a new life under the flag…collectively view our Star Spangled Banner as the greatest symbol of hope and freedom our world has ever seen. And while there is no definitive way to say whose feelings or emotions on what the flag represents are right and whose are wrong, I have a lifetime of experience around the globe that affirms our flag represents far more good than not. Disrespecting our flag at any time, regardless of intent, spits directly in the face of those who have sacrificed to uphold that goodness, our veterans in particular.

In fact, veterans are the common thread between the first two butterflies and the current tempest. The American soldier, disrespected by today’s NFL, is the one thing standing between the Islamic terrorists unleashed by ineffective leadership in 1979 and the American public. A recent internet post noted that today’s American soldiers are progeny from Valley Forge, Fort McHenry, Buena Vista, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, the Bulge, Pork Chop Hill, Ia Drang Valley, The Fulda Gap, Falluja, and Helmand Province. Thomas Jefferson declared “all men are created equal,” but it was American soldiers who fought from 1775 to 1783 to establish a government based on that vision; it was American soldiers in 1814 who sacrificed their very lives to hold our Star-Spangled Banner aloft so it could be seen o’er the ramparts at Fort McHenry; and it was an African-American soldier who held “Old Glory” high in July 1863 at the battle of Fort Wagner, SC.

Sergeant William Carney, a black man born into slavery, earned our nation’s highest award for protecting our flag. After witnessing the Color Guard mortally wounded, Sgt. Carney retrieved the Colors before they hit the ground and held them aloft – reminiscent of what happened at Fort McHenry that inspired our National Anthem. Carney himself was struck twice by bullets, but he never let the Colors touch the ground. His heroics led him to become the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor. Such gallantry is why American soldiers’ caskets are draped with the American flag, a tribute to the fallen and all those throughout history who have given the last full measure of devotion to our country.

The flag still represents the greatest hope for freedom the world has ever seen, and our diverse military is the strongest in the world, in large part due to that diversity. Sgt. Carney knew all the rights and privileges he was fighting for did not yet exist, but he saw enough promise in our experiment in democracy that the Star Spangled Banner represented, that he was willing to die to see it fly. Sgt. Carney’s sacrifice still stands today as a positive call to action to witness and fight for the good in our country.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Soldiers don’t fight because they hate what’s in front of them; they fight because they love what’s behind them." A mind-twisting double irony is at play: 1) soldiers are what give people the independence to take a knee in safety, the liberty to protest, and the freedom to speak their mind, while 2) the protesters doing so during the National Anthem, directing their ire at the Star Spangled Banner, are disrespectful to those soldiers regardless of the protesters’ intent. The very soldiers and the flag that represent the country that allows the NFL to flourish have become the target. It’s nonsensical. 

The butterfly has flapped its wings. Commissioner Goodell, team owners, coaches, and players have failed to stand at the moment of decision. They lack vision, and the Good Book tells us that without vision, people perish. They have also failed at leadership. A warning to the NFL and our country: without leadership, declining ratings and revenues will be the least of our worries. The NFL’s unraveling and devaluation may portend a disintegration of our social contract, and a reversal of E Pluribus Unum (from many, one). Let’s pray American leadership regains its foothold, and this hurricane veers off coast.

Mac Warner is West Virginia’s Secretary of State. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy West Point and the WVU College of Law. He also earned a Masters Degree in International Law from the University of Virginia. Prior to being elected to public office, he retired as a Lt. Colonel with 23 years of service in the United States Army.