The NFL has once again reminded us of its staggering capacity to botch its handling of controversies and make itself look worse. Under their new policy, players must either stand while the National Anthem or stay in the locker room until the song is over. If a player kneels, their team will be forced to pay a fine. There are a lot of thoughts I have on this, most of them negative, which I have organized below:
- The argument that kneeling during the Anthem is offensive do not hold up well. It has been asked why players are “taking out” their grievances on the flag and the U.S. The United States government legally oppressed black people via slavery for almost eighty years (following over a century of slavery in the colonial era), and Jim Crow was in place from the 1690s to the 1960s. Since racial equality under the law was achieved half a century ago, racism and de facto racial inequality has continued to be a huge problem. With that point in mind, it should be easy to understand why kneeling NFL players are “taking it out” on the flag and the country even if you disagree with their tactics. Arguments that they are disrespecting soldiers and veterans are also weak. Kneeling players are taking issue with our government and society, not our soldiers, whom Kaepernick specifically expressed respect for. The American flag represents our government; the National Anthem praises the U.S. as “the land of the free.” The author, Francis Scott Key, worked for the State as a prosecutor. Hence, singing the National Anthem and waving the American flag are not simply a show of respect for military personnel but also a tribute to the United States government. As others have pointed out, if players’ quarrel was with our soldiers, they might have chosen, for example, to protest the NFL’s policy of giving discounts to people from the military. They didn’t. In fact, in the military, soldiers who don’t stand for the Anthem are punished, something which would make little sense if honoring soldiers were actually its primary purpose.
- The argument that NFL players shouldn’t be “protesting on the job” and need to leave politics off the field is sloppy. Kaepernick and players who followed his example have not marched around the field chanting and waving protest signs. They have simply refused to take part in a political ritual. It is a protest, but it is a very unobtrusive, low-key protest. Furthermore, people who simultaneously want to take a break from politics while watching the NFL yet also adore the performance of the National Anthem are being highly inconsistent given how political the Anthem is. People claiming a double standard because of players not being allowed to wear political insignia are missing the point: if there’s a double standard, then the playing of the National Anthem is itself an example of that double standard in action.
- Is this a free speech violation? It’s complicated. Generally, free speech rights only apply to protection from being censored by the government. As I myself have argued, private corporations can–and sometimes probably should–fire people for political beliefs. With the NFL, however, it’s sticky, because they receive a lot of taxpayer support in terms of subsidies and use of publicly funded venues. So at that point, there’s a strong case to be made that what the NFL is doing amounts to taxpayer-funded censorship. This is especially true if you force someone to stand for the anthem or hide in the locker room in a public stadium. As if it weren’t murky enough, we have the fact that, as conservatives have been loudly complaining about, the U.S. government got the NFL to start performing the Anthem through financial incentives. Then we have the fact that Trump was threatening to make the NFL pay more taxes if it didn’t punish kneeling players. So we have a pretty strong case that the government has effectively bribed/threatened the league into punishing players who kneel, which is obviously illegal.
- The only good thing about this asinine new policy is that players who don’t want to stand for the Anthem can stay in the locker room. But this caveat does not prevent the policy from being unjust. It effectively tells players who feel they cannot standing during the Anthem that they are not welcome on the field and would be better off unseen. If players who feel positively about the Anthem are given the ability to stand, then it is only fair that players who feel negatively should be given the ability to kneel or sit. Kneeling or sitting does not prevent anyone else from standing, it does not prevent the Anthem from being played, and it should not prevent anyone else from enjoying the Anthem.
- Conservatives cannot complain about “political correctness” and liberal intolerance of different viewpoints and also want players punished for not standing during a song. Nor can anyone who has said the phrase “Make America great again” take umbrage at people kneeling because they don’t think America is great. And claims about kneeling being unpatriotic or disrespectful to the military are hard to take seriously when they come from people who are fine with the display of the Confederate Flag. After all, in addition to being founded to protect slavery, the Confederacy broke apart from the U.S. and killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers (in pursuit of slavery.)
- Unless I am very much mistaken, the NFL’s strategy here is going to backfire. One thing we have learned over the years is that when it comes to displays of patriotism and un-patriotism–be it not standing for the Pledge, not standing the Anthem, flag burning, etc.–many people on the Right simply will not tolerate dissent. Kaepernick decided to kneel instead of sit after talking to a veteran. That wasn’t good enough. Before Donald Trump poured gasoline on a dying fire last Fall, only about a dozen players were kneeling. That wasn’t good enough. Trump and many of his supporters have demanded that players either stand or be fired. I cannot imagine that those people are going to be satisfied with players having the option of staying in the locker room or with the punishment being fines instead of termination. Meanwhile, the NFL has lost what respect it might have previously had from many people on the Left by caving into reactionaries after originally promising to respect players’ ability to stand or not stand as they see fit. And for what? The controversy had already died down considerably since last Fall, but through its own bad judgment, the NFL just reignited it. They have also strengthened Colin Kaepernick’s case in his collusion lawsuit.
- The context of the National Anthem itself makes it more problematic. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholders who used his position as a prosecutor to punish abolitionists and rebellious slaves. There has been debate over whether one line in the full version of “The Star Spangled Banner” praises killing slaves, but regardless, Key’s background and the era in which the song was written makes it cringeworthy enough.