In Defense of the Protests

By Sean Conte
Sep. 26th, 2017

Sports are – generally –  an escape from politics and current events. My colleague here at the Hog Sty, Steve Thomas, said as much in a passionate editorial on the recent “flag protests” (or “anthem protests”) occurring around the NFL. At times, however, those two worlds come crashing together, as they now have in the wake of the President’s recent incendiary comments on Twitter.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem last year to bring awareness to the marginalization of minorities and, in particular, police brutality in the African American community. This didn’t sit well with some, who saw the protest as a wholesale dis of the USA rather than a form of message-laden symbolic speech.

This is a tough debate. The right to free speech, as Steve pointed out, concerns government censorship and not speech restrictions in the private sector. The NFL is a private entity, and so it generally has the right to discipline or terminate players for behavior it doesn’t like (corporate rights in this arena are somewhat limited by anti-discrimination laws and local statutes, depending on the behavior in question).

It’s difficult to discuss this issue without spinning off  into a fully political conversation or getting philosophical. What good, one might ask, is the right to free speech from the government if it’s really the corporations that hold the keys to our wealth and quality of life? What good is freedom of speech if you stand to lose your livelihood, health care, and home from exercising it (and remember, we’re not talking about hate speech here)? Furthermore, how free is a market in which the President of the United States stands up and advocates a private-entity boycott simply because he disagrees personally with certain players’ protest methods? That feels like market manipulation to me, and an abuse of power, among other things.

It takes a lot for me to see a multi-billion dollar organization as a victim, but I can’t help but feel empathy for Goodell and the NFL. Right now they’re likely feeling torn between alienating the President and his ilk (who recently called protesters “sons of bitches”) or alienating the league’s lifeblood itself, i.e., the players, and those who support them. What’s worse is that the league is not kneeling, the league is not taking a stand, it is individual human beings within it that are. Boycotting the NFL is a bit like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

This is all made more confusing by the fact that many teams, including the Washington Redskins, have come forward to issue statements in support of the protesters, even in cases where the team owners gave large sums of money to Trump’s campaign. While they may reserve the right to terminate player contracts, it doesn’t appear anyone is interesting in going that route. Is that because they believe in the players’ message, or are their hands simply tied by an already-underway football season? I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is that I’m thankful.

So, where do we go from here? Is there common ground anywhere? Interestingly enough, anthem protests like this go back before World War II. They really took off in the 1960’s and 70’s during the Civil Rights movement, notably at the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 college football season and continued throughout the decade. That form of protest was no more loved then as it is now, with athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar getting deluged with boos after refusing to stand for the anthem.

That booing is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s the sound of freedom. After all, freedom that demands purity, or adherence, is not real freedom at all. In a country in which our fundamental rights are, in effect, usurped by corporate policy, we should be quite afraid that dissenting opinions will be silenced, not by the fierce oversight of government, but by massive corporations and the very mechanisms of free market economics; that is, self-interest and the desire for mass-appeal and competitive advantage.

I would like to thank the NFL owners around the league that stood their ground and issued statements in support of the anthem protests. As corporations continue to grow and dictate more and more about the world and society around us, these business leaders (and many corporate leaders around the country) are the ones that truly hold the keys to the spirit of this country’s constitution. That’s an incredible responsibility. As long as they support the right to free speech, or the right to peaceably assemble and/or air grievances against the government (including state and local police forces), the flame of American spirit and ingenuity continues to burn. When they don’t, the flame goes out in a puff of smoke. Maybe it’s not a First Amendment violation, but it’s de facto censorship, and it gets the same result.

TL;DR? I couldn’t care less if someone kneels during the anthem. I’d wager that a statistically significant portion of Americans couldn’t recite the lyrics, and that really doesn’t bother me. One’s perceived reverence for a song that became the national anthem in 1931 – and not a day before – says nothing about how they value the fundamental principles of being an American. To posit that this country’s greatness is precariously balanced on the edge of standing/not standing for the anthem makes this country sound weak.

President Trump took to Twitter again to applaud those who booed the protesters this weekend. I applaud them too. I think their opinion is wrong, but I don’t think they should be boycotted for it – personally or professionally –  and I’m proud to live in a country where a person’s right to voice it is upheld voluntarily by the very corporations who would be perfectly within their rights to terminate them for it.

What do you think? All opinions are welcome.