Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy and is one of the many benefits of living in our free nation. Often, taking advantage of the rights that we are afforded, we misunderstand or misrepresent their true intention. President Donald Trump and the NFL are at odds regarding the former’s remarks toward players who protest racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. During his Huntsville, Ala. event on Sept. 22, Trump urged NFL owners to remove players from the field if they take a knee, calling them “sons of b*****s,” and throwing gasoline on the debate over whether or not sports should be political.
As a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, I believe that the players are within their rights to protest, as long as the protests are not violent. At the same time, I recognize that the owners have the legal capability to fire players if the protests are in violation of their contracts and threaten the NFL’s ability to “sell their product.” If you consider any scenario — whether you are an employee at a company or a student at a university — the individual represents the organization. If said individual does something that the business or university believes will directly disadvantage profits, some degree of action will likely be taken, which would also be outlined in the contract.
There will be people who think that is wrong and I would agree with them, but big businesses such as the NFL come down to dollars and cents. If people listen to the president and start boycotting games and sponsors of the NFL withdraw their products, the NFL is likely to react, as any business would. Even so, owners should not take their cue from the president or any other government official, and that is where the situation gets tricky. As Catherine J. Ross, a professor who specializes in constitutional law at The George Washington law school, explained to USA Today, “You don’t waive your right to speak because you’re the president.” Ross goes on to say that although the legislative branch possesses the power to prevent players from kneeling, the president still “yields enormous power” and can use that power to pressure companies, which would in effect be an “unwarranted interference with freedom of expression.” Fortunately, it appears at the moment that the NFL owners are supporting the players who have chosen to exercise their rights as American citizens to peacefully protest.
America has a long history of athletes protesting publicly. Sports are always mixed with politics and it is with our advanced form of media that the message is spreading faster than ever before. According to ABC News, it was in 1967 when Muhammad Ali used his recognition to publicly declare that he would not enlist in the military for the Vietnam War. Likewise, Jackie Robinson admitted in his 1972 autobiography that “I cannot stand and sing the national anthem,” and did so as a form of silent protest after making an agreement with Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who signed him with the Dodgers that he “would not respond to racial slurs and hate.”
What we see on our fields and courts today is not unprecedented; there is a long list of protesters who mixed sports and politics, and did so with the intention that they would highlight injustices that remain prevalent in society. Rather than call for citizens to be fired for exercising the cornerstone of our democracy, the president should call for our citizens to recognize the chasm that exists in our nation with regard to racial equality and commit to healing the divide.
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