Ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat (and then eventually took a knee) during the National Anthem last year, incendiary arguments have been waged; this is the the wrong stage; he’s applying a fundamental American right; he’s disrespecting the men and women in uniform; the arguments are expansive. Kaepernick’s protest generated support, and even activism, among many NFL players, as well superstars from other sports. Even fans are boycotting the sport because there’s a widespread belief that NFL owners are colluding against Kaepernick. Even if fans disagree with the context, it must be acknowledged their right to protest. No rules are being broken. A few knees, a few fists clinched in the air is peaceful and their actions have has done little to disrupt the game. Are players sitting on the field during a play? No. Let ’em protest. That’s their right.
This is how athletes have protested for many generations in the United States; they are usually peaceful, symbolic, while generating significant attention, and enhancing a powerful dialogue, even if some people feel uncomfortable about mixing sports, politics, and race. This is how protests work. Many hate dealing with it. They can’t handle it. Regardless, it’s part of our sports lexicon, now more than ever; it’s a narrative that requires interaction and resolution. Yet, you have a choice; you can ignore the conversation and go about your life, take part, counter-protest/boycott, change the channel, walk away. While you don’t have the same stage as athletes (the availability of the internet is saturating that argument anyway), you have the same rights.
Then President Donald Trump weighed-in during a rally from Alabama on Friday night.
I have no issues with Trump promoting an opinion; largely because he’ll change his mind within six months, as if this comment never even happened and fewer, and fewer, people take his disillusioned and disconnected thoughts seriously. Let’s face facts… Friday night was a means to feed into the President’s narcissism.
Here’s the issue: The President of the United States is advocating the suppression of free speech and challenging the right to a peaceful protest via the threat of employment. This isn’t the first time. When Jemele Hill called him a white supremacist, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued for employment termination and Trump outrageously demanded an apology. ESPN cowardly issued a statement of apology:
“The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”
In defense of ESPN, unless there’s a collectively bargained agreement with a union, there’s no law protecting an employee’s right to free speech (the first amendment only applies to laws issued by the government that would prohibit your right). Trump demanded an apology and ESPN tried to remove Hill from the air. However, her co-host, Michael Smith, refused to do SportsCenter without her, and Elle Duncan, someone the company asked to replace her, also refused. Thankfully the NFL and the NFLPA disregards the Presidents ramblings, as they should. More on that in a second.
It’s dangerous when someone from the highest level of elected office fundamentally and willfully ignores constitutional rights. Granted, there’s no evidence that any actual rights are being violated; Kaepernick doesn’t have a constitutional right to play in the NFL, and there’s no evidence that NFL owners are colluding against him (though the circumstantial argument is powerful). Regardless, Trump’s comments supports the on-going narrative that he’s unfit for office; in the nine months he’s been President, Trump has failed to pass any significant leglistation through a Republican-majority Congress (largely because he spends most his time attacking the same Republicans votes he needs on Twitter); many bills/laws he’s executively signed has largely been designed to reverse Obama-era laws; though he did promise he’d do that. He’s dangerously complying a self-fulfilling prophesy by antagonizing North Korea into action, using terrorist attacks to enhance anti-immigration policies, and spends an inordinate amount of time responding to perceived slights.
Executive Director of the NFL Players Association released a statement early Saturday morning, responding to Trump’s comments:
“Whether or not Roger and the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen. This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded soon after:
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
Whether or not your agree with Trump, regarding his opinion on players protesting the National Anthem is immaterial (he’ll change his mind once it suits his always-changing platform). Players are doing what they believe is right. Everyone has a right to express themselves, regardless of the dialogue. The issue here is that Trump is dangerously advocating something that’s a fundamental right for all Americans; the right to free speech and the right to peaceful protests.