Players’ Right to Protest: NFL Unfairly Censors Conservative Speech

Our president’s latest temper tantrum to distract the country from his total inefficacy as commander-in-chief was a tirade against the National Football League (NFL). President Donald J. Trump made a firestorm of statements via Twitter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that players who kneel during the national anthem to protest the “[oppression] of black people and people of color” ought to be fired.

It should go without saying that Trump has no right to tell private businesses what to do. I would be equally abhorred if former President Barack Obama had told the CEO of Chick-fil-A to step down. But given that Trump could be $10 billion richer had he merely invested his money in the stock market instead of relying on his own abilities as a “master dealmaker,” he probably ought not dole out financial advice anyway.

I bet Goodell thanks the Lord every day that he was blessed with greater business acumen than our president.

I’m certainly preaching to the choir, so defensibility of Trump’s behavior is a moot point. A much more engrossing question is whether we ought to be kneeling for the anthem in the first place. Here’s my answer: Who cares?

Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the recent kneeling movement, is just some guy who graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor’s degree in business management. He also happens to be able throw an oblong ball really far — though apparently not far enough to keep his job at the San Francisco 49ers. He is positioned no better or no worse to comment on politics than Ted Nugent.

The problem has never been with the political philosophy of NFL players’ rights but with the total hypocrisy of the NFL itself on this issue.

In a 2016 preseason game, Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem to protest that the American flag does not “represent what it’s supposed to represent,” according to The New York Times.

The NFL said nothing. And it shouldn’t have. Kaepernick should be free to spread whatever message he chooses.

But, that same season, the NFL said that it would fine players who wore American flag-themed cleats in remembrance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Several players played chicken with the NFL until the league eventually capitulated.

That same season, the NFL said that the Dallas Cowboys could not wear decals on their helmets to commemorate Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson, the five police officers who were brutally slain in the streets in the line of duty by a madman with a sniper rifle in Dallas last year.

That same season, the NFL said that if the Georgia state legislature passed a law in furtherance of religious liberty, the city of Atlanta could be removed from consideration to host a future Super Bowl.

That same season, the NFL showed us all that it has few qualms leveraging its institutional weight into silencing some speech — conservative speech. Liberal speech, however, remains free from NFL censorship.

That is the definition of intolerance.

The NFL didn’t even reprimand the St. Louis Rams in 2014 when the whole team ran onto the field with their hands up to protest the Michael Brown shooting — an event that remains far more controversial than the murder of innocent police officers.

“We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said in 2014. What a farce.

We are now four games into the 2017 season and hordes of players have already begun kneeling before every game, with no response by the NFL.
The solution is not to punish Kaepernick or the Rams or even the whole groups of players who have banded together in protest. Instead, NFL players should be permitted to commemorate 9/11; the Dallas Cowboys should be able to remember the police officers murdered in their city; and the Georgia state legislature should be able to pass resolutions unencumbered by institutions that, despite having no vested interest, seek to appease the political left.

As shocked as I am, and as inappropriate as I find his comments, maybe Trump accidentally had a point. This is not to endorse his position on the NFL; my position on Trump and his comments is clear. But at least some of Trump’s comments were lodged in the right general direction.

Obviously, the modus operandi of the NFL should not be to institute a blanket ban on protests during the anthem.

But it is hard to respect an institution that silences conservative speech with one hand and massages the political left with the other.

Kaepernick should have every right to protest whatever he pleases during the national anthem, but the same standard must apply to all speech, conservative and liberal alike.

Speech is only free when its regulation is content-neutral. An athlete should be as free to protest gay marriage, abortion rights and Black Lives Matter as he is to protest gun control, systematic oppression or the wage gap. Until he is, the NFL will remain just another partisan organization that has lost the respect of so much of the American public.

 

Grant Osborn is a College junior from Springfield, Ohio. 

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