Montel Williams, former talk show host and decorated military veteran, got choked up during an emotional defense of NFL players’ rights to free speech this week.
Williams, who served 22 years in the Marine Corps and Navy (retiring from latter service branch as a lieutenant commander), ripped into people criticizing athletes for kneeling or sitting during the national to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
“We’re all acting like we’re upset because someone seems to have offended you patriotically,” Williams said Tuesday on “Great Day Washington,” a local morning TV show in the nation’s capital. “The majority of people I hear opening their mouths ― they didn’t put a uniform on their back ... So how dare you disrespect those who have been shot for freedom of speech by telling people to shut up?”
Over 200 NFL players took a knee, sat or raised a fist as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games Sunday, according to The Associated Press. The mass demonstration was in response to a tirade President Donald Trump began last Friday ― and continued with weekend tweets ― against players who protest during the national anthem.
Critics of the protests, including Trump, claim the demonstrations are disrespectful to military personnel and first responders. But Williams pushed back against that argument, pointing out that he took an oath as a service member to defend the Constitution ― not the flag or the national anthem.
“In the history of television, I’m the only person to put the U.S. flag in the middle of their set,” said Williams, 61. “That was the flag I’m going to be buried in. But I respect your right to disagree any way you choose to.”
“Our Constitution confirmed that you can burn a flag,” he continued, as tears rolled down his face. “How dare we not allow people to get down on their knees and pray that this country wakes up?”
“I’m sorry, but I see a lot of people opening their big mouths on television,” Williams said. “But their family didn’t serve. They didn’t let their children serve.”
The irony of Trump being taken seriously about issues of "respect" for anything after the Access Hollywood tape shouldn’t be lost on us. Montel Williams
“They relegated it to some of the people that they want to throw out of the country now,” he added, noting that roughly 40 percent of active-duty military personnel are people of color. “It disgusts me.”
Williams, during his TV appearance, refrained from specifically mentioning Trump, who reiterated his contempt for protesting NFL players on Tuesday, calling the demonstrations “disgraceful.” But the former talk show host skewered Trump in an op-ed published Monday in USA Today, knocking the president for creating crisis when “he feels insecure.”
He also referred to the 2005 video that surfaced last October in which Trump made lewd comments about women. “The irony of Trump being taken seriously about issues of ‘respect’ for anything after the Access Hollywood tape shouldn’t be lost on us — especially respect for the uniform, given that the president seems proud enough of dodging the draft to write about it in his books,” Williams wrote. “This isn’t about ‘respect.’ This is about dog-whistling to his base that a bunch of black athletes need to be put in their place.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.