“I Sit With Kaepernick” by JEFF ROTHERBERG
Dear Mr. Lurie:
I’m a typical NFL fan: I know that football is a barbaric, brain-battering sport, and I still love it. But as you and your fellow owners prepare to consider forcing players to stand for the national anthem, I’m called on to consider a question of my own: which do I love more, the NFL, or the Constitution?
I’m begging you: don’t make me choose. There’s only one answer.
I know people who have boycotted the NFL over its treatment of Colin Kaepernick. I respect that stance, but I haven’t joined them. I’m not particularly proud of that; it’s clear that Kaep would have a job if he hadn’t taken a stand. But like most fans I’ve kept watching, putting the owners’ obvious distaste for Kaepernick’s activism in the same crowded place I put all the other football uglies: the brain damage; the crooked colleges; the brain damage; the cannon-fodder treatment of the players; the brain damage.
We’ve all learned how to set these concerns aside on game day, mainly by falling back on what the players will say themselves: they’re grown men who know the risks and take them willingly. That’s not impregnable logic – we’re still learning about the risks – but it’s at least based on a principle of sorts.
But another, less-principled factor is at work: football may put players at risk, but it doesn’t put me at risk. The only personal risk I take by supporting the NFL comes from sitting on my widening butt for hours on end each week drinking beer. However, that calculus changes if the NFL gets into the business of weakening the Constitution.
If that happens, something of mine – something of ours – is at risk.
Let’s be clear about where the anthem debate is now: it’s not about police treatment of minorities anymore. It’s about speech. The President has chosen to make it a referendum about whether and when players can speak. The President doesn’t argue that NFL players are wrong about police or minorities or civil rights. He argues that the fact that they’re speaking is offensive, even when they speak by simply taking a knee.
The President and his supporters have tried to deodorize that argument by claiming that the anthem is a special, non-free-speech zone. “We don’t demand players’ obedience all the time,” they’ll say. “Only during the anthem.” Peel away the red-white-and-blue wrapper, and their case collapses.
The anthem isn’t protected by law. When it plays, the league allows all manner of responses: networks can cut to commercials; stadium employees can sell beer and hot dogs; fans can do whatever they want. Nor have any protests – kneeling, raising fists, locking arms – violated any law or decency code, or interfered with the game itself. Nobody’s giving the flag the finger. Players aren’t kneeling during pass patterns.
So given all that, what’s the President’s justification for asking the league to restrict the players’ First Amendment rights? The only answer: he’s offended. That’s the standard he invokes: his feelings are hurt, as are those of some – not all, just some – fans. By their own account, that’s the only harm the players’ speech does. Doesn’t harm the game; doesn’t harm the nation; doesn’t harm anybody. Just harms some people’s feelings.
That some Americans are offended by the protests is no surprise. I unconditionally support their right to say so. But this fan will be offended by the sight of players forced by their employers to obey the President. And this fan will happily argue that the danger of allowing any President to squash speech simply because it offends him is far, far greater than the danger of allowing that speech.
Plenty will argue that as employees, NFL players have no rightful expectation of free speech. Those people might win a few rounds in court, if it came to that. They’d be happy to set a precedent under which workers can be punished for failing to pledge fealty to the nation. Those folks wouldn’t mind reducing the anthem to mandated patriotic pageantry; they wouldn’t mind weakening the First Amendment; they wouldn’t mind having the NFL act as their enforcer.
But this fan would most definitely mind.
And I know I’m not alone. Commissioner Roger Goodell looks to me like a man who’s been backed into an unwelcome corner. His latest statement – “everyone should stand” – pointedly avoids the crucial question of whether the league is willing to fine or suspend players who don’t follow the script.
His proposed solution – “an in-season platform” promoting players’ community work – likewise dodges the core issue: when the anthem plays, are players citizens with rights, or actors with scripts?
Behind the scenes, the league looks to be quietly moving to make protest harder; Deadspin reports that it’s tweaking its code of conduct to allow Goodell to punish players (and their teams!) for anthem protests. But the league has always had the right to sanction players for disruptive or obscene behavior, protest or not, during the anthem or at any other time. What remains unclear is whether the NFL is prepared to ban any form of protest whatsoever, no matter how measured or respectful.
I’m a lifelong Eagles fan, forged in the crucible of Veterans’ Stadium, baptized by Wilbert Montgomery as he blasted off right tackle and into the Super Bowl to the roaring delight of 70,000 frozen lunatics. I can support a league that makes mistakes. I can support a league that asks players to take great risks. I can even support a league that shies away from controversy.
But a league that actively helps a politician squash speech he doesn’t like?
That’s not a league I can support.
So when you head to New York next week, Mr. Lurie, I’m urging you: support the players’ right to express themselves. Don’t get suckered by misguided calls for league-enforced “unity.” Don’t fall for your colleagues’ scare tactics or the President’s threats. And for God’s sake, don’t listen to a word out of Jerry Jones – not on this issue.
Let the players have their say; let the fans have their say; let the President have his say, and let the anthem be an anthem – not an obedience test.
Bill Hangley, Jr.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Follow him @billhangley