Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Free Speech, Free Association, and the NFL

My thoughts on NFL players' "protest" against the National Anthem

There's a lot of noise coming out about NFL players "protesting" the National Anthem by either "taking a knee" instead of standing, or staying in the locker room instead of being on the field. A lot of great minds have weighed in on this, and even though I'm a bit late to the game (no pun intended), I have a few thoughts to share.

[TL;DR version: Dear NFL players: Nobody is questioning your right to protest. What you do on your own time is your business, but on that field, in that uniform, you are not on your time; you are on ours, and we expect you to conduct yourself accordingly.]

The history on this issue has been documented better elsewhere, but here's a very short version, as understood by yours truly:
  • The first "protester" was quarterback Colin Kaepernick, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers and currently a free agent, who remained seated during the National Anthem last year, to protest racial oppression and mistreatment of "people of color" by police.
  • Since then, other players have joined in, kneeling "in solidarity".
  • This year, President Donald Trump weighed in during a rally in Alabama, saying in part [edited for language], "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b***h off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!'"
  • Currently, whole teams are kneeling or retreating to the locker room during the National Anthem, and the "protest" against racial injustice has become synonymous with anti-Trump rhetoric.
(At this point, I want to offer some serious KUDOS to offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, Villanueva stood alone with his hand over his heart for the National Anthem; the rest of the team stayed in the locker room.)

More below the fold.

There's also been rumor that the NFL Rulebook prohibits protests during the National Anthem, and requires players be on the field and standing. This is false; the Rulebook says no such thing.

That said, the Rulebook only governs in-game actions and penalties — not pre- or post-game activities — and is not the NFL's only governing document. Another, the NFL Game Operations Manual (provided to all clubs and staff but not available for download anywhere I can find), does address conduct during the National Anthem. According to a League source, pages A62-63 state (bold emphasis added):
The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.

During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.
Notwithstanding a lot of hemming and hawing over the "should" and "may" language in the second paragraph — which makes it more a guideline than a rule — the first is very clear: teams and players choosing to remain in the locker rooms during the National Anthem are in violation of League rules, whether the League chooses to impose sanctions or not.

However, that's all in the public sphere. Here are my personal observations and thoughts.

First: The players, coaches, etc., have every right to engage in political activism and protest. That's a given, and is not seriously being questioned.

Second: That said, the players, teams, coaches, etc., are extraordinarily lucky that the NFL and individual club owners either agree with them or are too spineless to take action.

Third: In any other context, in any other profession, individuals who engage in political activism during business or work hours, or do so while wearing "branded" clothing — including uniforms, shirts with logos, identifiable security badges, etc. — would face disciplinary action from their employer, up to and including termination of employment. This has been true in EVERY job I've ever held, public AND private sector; there's ALWAYS a Code of Conduct to which all employees must agree. An employer cannot stop its employees from participating, but can require that employees not impugn the employer's reputation or make ANY implication that the employer condones or agrees with the employee's political actions.

Fourth: Football fans are turning off the TV and not attending games over these protests, and I firmly believe it's not just because of the anti-American sentiment; it's also because the players are being allowed to protest on the field, in uniform. Any other worker in America could get fired for this, and they know it. It adds to the perception that NFL players are overpaid, often-morally-challenged whiners who believe they're "better" than other people, and those "other people" (read: the rest of America) are getting sick of it.

Finally: The NFL and club owners could put a stop to the protests. They could end tomorrow. Just one, simple statement: "The National Football League [or whichever team] opposes racial injustice in America. We stand for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or creed. We acknowledge that there are legitimate grievances and conversations that must take place, however, the football field on game day is not the right place or time. As representatives of the League and individual clubs, players are expected to conduct themselves professionally, with respect for themselves, their teammates and opponents, and for this great nation. It is our position that all players shall stand on the sidelines for the presentation of the national flag and the playing of the National Anthem, and that disciplinary actions will be taken against players and clubs who intentionally fail to do so." That they don't issue such a statement, and allow the shenanigans to continue, speaks volumes.

Short version: What you do on your own time is your business, but on that field, in that uniform, you are not on your time; you are on ours, and we expect you to conduct yourself accordingly.

Just my opinion.

Stay safe.

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