Free speech: The NFL’s kneeling ‘compromise’
“The National Football League should be ashamed of itself,” said Jonathan Capehart in WashingtonPost.com. The NFL last week bowed down to “the moral vacuum that is President Trump” and announced a crackdown on players who kneel during the national anthem. That exercise of free speech began two years ago, when small groups of players knelt before games to protest police shootings and mistreatment of black men. The deliberately divisive Trump turned the low-key protests into a national furor last year, saying “any son of a bitch” who dares to kneel should be “fired,” and calling for a fan boycott. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s owners have caved in, unveiling a new rule mandating that “all team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” In what was billed as a “compromise,” players who don’t wish to stand during the anthem can stay in the locker room, but any who take the field and kneel will see their team hit with stiff fines. Trump correctly saw this as a victory for his demagoguery, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com, triumphantly proclaiming that players who don’t respect the flag “shouldn’t be in the country.” This authoritarian rhetoric enthralls his base, which is offended by uppity black millionaires failing to show proper deference and gratitude.
This was purely a business decision, said Derek Hunter in USAToday.com. NFL viewership has plunged 17 percent since 2015, and while the brain-injury problem is also a factor, the weekly spectacle of highly paid athletes disrespecting the flag created a “swirling public relations disaster” that the league had no choice but to address. As for “free speech,” the new rule leaves players “six other days of the week, and 21 other hours on the day of games” to protest how and whatever they want. Free speech is a protected right, said Tom Joyce in WashingtonExaminer.com. But “having a job isn’t.” If NFL players won’t help the league make a product that fans are willing to watch, they can seek employment elsewhere.
My fellow conservatives are a bunch of hypocrites, said David French in The New York Times. When Google fired employee James Damore for his comments on gender differences, we rallied to his defense. We “rightly decry” the intolerance of dissent sweeping the nation’s campuses. But now most conservatives gleefully applaud when the NFL shuts down the players’ free speech and says, “Conform or face the consequences.” Such “corporate censorship” is at odds with the “culture of liberty” conservatives supposedly support. In its militaristic pregame and halftime ceremonies, the NFL “loves to drape itself in the nationalistic fervor of the flag,” said Chris Kluwe in NBCNews.com. Too bad the league has forgotten “what that flag actually means”: the right to “protest against your government when you feel it is has wronged you,” whether the government likes it or not.
Goodell’s “compromise” will almost surely fail anyway, said Robert Silverman in TheDailyBeast.com. Players are now required to show “respect” during the anthem, but what if players stand and raise a fist, or link arms in solidarity? And if a substantial number of players remain in the locker room, many fans—and Trump—will see that “as equally insulting to the troops.” The NFL’s owners should realize that with Trump whipping up “near-perpetual outrage” in the MAGA crowd, the backlash against the kneeling players “is never going away, regardless of what they do.” ■