In January I attended a movie showing and panel discussion around the film “Walking While Black L.O.V.E. is the Answer” at Temple Law School. After showing the movie, the panel talked about issues surrounding the relationship between communities and police. It was a very informative discussion which spent a lot of time fleshing out the problems in community-police interactions and ideas about how to properly address them, but my motivation to go was not because I wanted to be a part of this discussion. I went to this event because I wanted to see the people on the panel. More specifically, I wanted to meet some football players.
The panel included the film’s co-producer, a representative from the ACLU, a Philadelphia Police Officer, and three players from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles players in attendance were Malcolm Jenkins, Torrey Smith, and Rodney McLeod. Though McLeod didn’t speak much during the discussion, Jenkins and Smith had a lot to say. They shared a lot about their experiences with police, how the criminal justice system has affected their lives, and what they are doing in the communities to help alleviate the strain between law enforcement and communities. Even with all of these topics dominating the discussion, the players’ protest of the national anthem still remained prevalent. This event taught me that these players are getting involved in their communities, working with police officers, and formulating ideas to try to solve the problems in their areas. However, all the national headlines only talk about the anthem.
Over the past few years, multiple NFL players have protested during the playing/singing of the National Anthem at their games by kneeling, sitting down, or otherwise. Every week, the broadcasters would take note of what the players were doing during the anthem, often pointing out those who were not standing. First brought to prominence by Colin Kaepernick, the protests gained significant attention this past season due to multiple prominent political figures coming out against them. Kaepernick stated that his original intention of the protest was to bring attention to the issue of police brutality and many other players cite the same reason for their protests. Recently, the NFL changed their policy to fine players who kneel on the field, essentially forcing them to either be on the field and stand or remain in the locker room for the anthem. This has re-ignited the controversy months before the next NFL game will take place.
Now, my unpopular opinion is this: I don’t think the players or the NFL are in the wrong on this issue.
Athletes involved in the national sports leagues do not often get national media coverage for the positive things they are doing off the field. You won’t see very much of Kevin Durant helping out in youth basketball leagues, but you can easily find the elevator video of Ray Rice beating his girlfriend. For these athletes, so much of the focus is put onto what they do on the field that the programs in which they are involved to help improve their community get overlooked. So, a good way to get attention is to do something different when the national spotlight is fixed on you. For NFL players, that spotlight is Sunday afternoons while millions of people have their game on their screens.
I have never personally been offended by the players kneeling during the national anthem. Even though I always stand for the National Anthem, I grew up with kids choosing not to stand for the pledge of allegiance in the morning for a variety of reasons, so I am used to people not following standard social protocol for these things. Some argue that the people who do not stand for the national anthem are disrespecting those who have served in the armed forces and the country as a whole, but I do not find this argument to be very convincing. To justify this argument, you would have to say that you must respect the people who fought for your rights by being forced to not exercise those rights and do things in only one acceptable way. We can agree as to what should be done, but I do not think it is worth imitating a totalitarian state and forcing everybody to do things a certain way if those protesting have a justification for doing so. Now, I do think that common decency should definitely apply here, meaning that no one should be screaming expletives or flipping off the anthem participants, but I believe that people should be free to express their patriotism in whatever way is appropriate. So, even though I would prefer to have every player stand up and put their hand over their heart or lock arms with those around them, I think it is important to recognize that these players can use their national platform in a simple, non-obscene manner to address the problems they want to fix.
On the other side, I think the NFL is perfectly within their authority to regulate the conduct of their players to a reasonable extent. Just like your employer can dictate what is appropriate for you to do at work, I believe that the NFL can decide what is appropriate to do during their events and what is not, regardless of whether it is being broadcast to millions of fans. This past year has not been good for NFL fans who want to keep politics out of their sporting events and it has reflected badly on the NFL as a whole. Sports are meant to unify people behind a common entity and the infusion of politics has made it more divisive. Some argue that restricting these player protests is a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but this is not exactly accurate. The First Amendment restricts the power of Congress to regulate speech. It does not forbid employers from regulating the speech of their employees and, if you think about it a little bit, this makes a lot of sense. There are many professions that handle sensitive and private information that would cause many problems if the employees could share that information without consequences. Employers have to take responsibility for the actions of their employees, so it is not surprising to see employers set limitations for what employees can and cannot do. So, in an attempt to take the politics out of their organization, the NFL is putting restrictions on protesting the national anthem in order to save their reputation.
The NFL clearly cares more about making money more than they care about the activism of their players, which is a choice that they are allowed to make, but they will have to deal with the consequences of it. I am curious about how this will play out next season. I would like to stop seeing the headlines focusing on the protests and instead talk about the causes that these players champion and the initiatives that the NFL supports, regardless of what their policy for the national anthem becomes, but I know this is a naive belief. National anthem protests get clicks and views, so it will probably remain a topic of discussion as long as our national leaders continue to make a big deal out of it. But I remain hopeful that we will eventually move on from National Anthem protests into a much more uplifting area: Concussions and CTE.
What do you think about these new rules?
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