By GINNY BIXBY
After weeks of criticism and media attention focused on players kneeling for the national anthem in protest, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at a news conference on Wednesday, Oct. 18 that while he believes that players should stand for the playing of the national anthem, he does not plan to create or enforce any rule requiring them to. While Goodell should openly support his players’ First Amendment rights, it is reassuring to know that he does not plan to censor them- after all, that would be illegal.
American citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech are non-negotiable. America as a nation was founded on the principles of protest when colonists fought against the taxation without representation in parliament by boycotting consumption of goods imported from Britain and dumped tea into the Boston Harbor. Free speech is not a new or radical concept, and considering that free speech is what brought about the forming of this country, it is arguable the right that must be held most sacred and protected. However, there seems to be this idea that public figures are not granted the same rights outlined in the First Amendment as “regular” citizens are, and this has fueled much of the criticism surrounding the protests.
San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick started protesting police brutality and racism by kneeling for the anthem in August 2016. Slowly, other players joined in, and recently these protests have become such a hot topic again because so many players are participating in them, particularly fueled by President Donald Trump’s racist words and actions throughout his campaign and presidency. But a lot has been misconstrued about these protests. What these players are protesting is not a flag and not an anthem.
In an interview with NFL Media in August 2016, Kaepernick said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” This was over a year ago, yet while more players have followed Kaepernick’s lead, there seems to be a lot of public discourse over whether or not this is disrespectful to the military and people are not listening to what these players are telling us. The irony is that the military fights for the rights of American citizens to engage in protest like these players are. Also, many players have directly stated that this has nothing to do with the military.
In a postgame locker room interview on Oct. 8, San Francisco 49ers player Eric Reid told reporters, “This is not about the military, this is not about the flag, this is not about the anthem. My mother served in the armed forces. Three of my uncles served in the armed forces… I have the utmost respect for the military, for the anthem, for the flag… this is about systemic oppression that has been rampant in this country for decades on top of decades.”
In response to Goodell’s news conference statement, Trump tweeted: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!” But what exactly is disrespectful about the players’ protests? Nothing. They are engaging in a completely peaceful, non-disruptive exercise of their First Amendment rights, the very same rights that allow Trump to tweet out inflammatory remarks on a nearly daily basis and allow him to call these protestors “sons of b******.”
Trump and his supporters need to realize that for Trump to be able to be as shocking and rambunctious as he is in his rhetoric, others need to be extended the same privilege. There is a popular argument that NFL players and similar public figures such as actors should not get the same rights to discuss controversial issues like police brutality. However, there is no logic to this argument.
While these players are privileged in that they are paid enormous salaries and are getting to play a game they love for a living, that does not mean that they suddenly are no longer American citizens. In fact, their large platform is an excellent way for them to voice their concerns on certain issues. Kaepernick and Reid, for example, are black athletes who are using their position in the world to speak up for other black Americans who are discriminated against and are subject to systemic racism. Why shouldn’t someone in the public eye take on this issue? They have an exorbitantly large following and audience that the average citizen cannot reach.
Regardless of what the NFL players -or anyone, for that matter- are protesting, the First Amendment is not up for debate. Free speech is what makes America the country that it is, and attacks on it threaten American freedom. Maybe it is time to stop worrying so much about respecting a flag and start worrying about treating people as they should be treated: as free, equal American.