Leave it to President Donald Trump to stir up a controversy at a time when he should have been dealing with the myriad issues confronting the country. But as untimely as his actions to take on the NFL players and owners may have been, that doesn’t mean he was entirely wrong.
The President castigated the players for taking a knee during the national anthem and accused the owners of being afraid to take action against them. Trump said the players showed “a total disrespect of our heritage…a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” When the players suggested that Trump’s comments were “racial” (the NFL is approximately 70 per cent African American), the President shot back: “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem.”
From the players’ perspective, it’s all about race. When former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem last season, he said he wasn’t “going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Statements by players and teams after last week’s protests reinforced Kaepernick’s position. The Seattle Seahawks were one of several teams that skipped the anthem altogether. The team issued a statement in support of the players, which said, “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.”
The protests have been defended as an exercise of free speech, and prohibiting them as a violation of the constitution. While the First Amendment guarantees every American free speech, an employer may adopt rules that limit those rights in the work place. In other words, players have the freedom to protest the national anthem at, say, a mall or a rally, but not on the playing field if the employer (i.e., the NFL) prohibits such action. Such rules are no more a denial of free speech than when a government employer prohibits the use of the employer’s equipment – phones, computers, copy machines – to campaign for a political candidate.
In a world where sports and politics intersect, business – money – trumps both (no pun intended). Hence, NFL owners weren’t about to enforce the league rule – “policy,” according to a league spokesperson - that requires players to be on the field 10 minutes prior to kickoff. Similarly, the NBA has a rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to “stand respectfully” for the national anthem. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he “expected” players to comply with the rule, although he didn’t say what would happen if they didn’t.
The reality is neither the NBA nor the NFL has any intention of enforcing their rules. Owners fear such actions will serve to galvanize the players even more than President Trump has. If the players elect to walk out, there won’t be any games, and owners will take a hit to their pocketbooks.
On the other hand, by ignoring those rules both leagues are sending the message that not all rules are required to be obeyed. Are players then free to choose which rules they obey and which ones they ignore? Can players violate their league’s drug policy without fear of being disciplined? Doesn’t such action, if universally adopted, inevitably lead to chaos?
This is the greatest country on earth, although we are far from perfect. There are ways to work towards correcting those imperfections that don’t involve kneeling for the national anthem. One of the greatest gifts we have, one that so many men and women have fought and died for, is the right to exercise free speech. That includes the right to protest, albeit in a legal and peaceful manner.
However, the U.S. is a country of laws and rules. We don’t get to pick and choose which ones we obey and which ones we ignore. Unless, of course, we are prepared to suffer the consequences. On that issue, President Trump was correct.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.