The First Amendment and Football.

Sports and politics collided in remarkable fashion this weekend when the President weighed in on the debate surrounding players kneeling for the national anthem. It is very clear that there are distinct sides to this argument, and before continuing it is worth noting that all sides do have arguments worth hearing and understanding. Since that is the entire point of this blog, I feel it is appropriate to put in my two cents as well.

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem just over one year ago, a heated debate then ensued that has unfortunately, pitted one segment of Americans against another. As this debate has grown in scope and importance, more than two sides have emerged, and it is important to lay out those sides:

  1. Players kneeling are rightfully protesting systemic injustice in our society, and I too would kneel if in their position.
  2. Players kneeling are rightfully exercising their first amendment right to free speech, their reasoning for doing so can and should not exclude them from first amendment protections. I am unsure as to whether or not I would kneel, but I recognize their right to do so.
  3. These players are disrespecting our flag and our country, they have the opportunity to live in this country and make millions of dollars, they should have respect for our flag because of this. I would not kneel if I were in this position, and I believe that these athletes should not use professional football as a platform of protest.

To my knowledge, the three sides laid out above best capture the different reactions from those who have weighed in on this topic. Now, to be fair, it should be stated that the NFL (a private corporation) does have the right to prohibit their employees (players) from engaging in behavior (kneeling) that could be damaging to their brand. However, the NFL has opposed such actions as they loudly stated this weekend, so the ensuing debate is surely one concerning freedom of speech. That being said, the one side I have had the most trouble grappling with is the third side I laid out. While I understand the face value of this argument, I believe that upon further scrutiny this position only contradicts itself, here’s why:

Individuals with this position are without a doubt patriotic, and they love this flag. In fact, I think that the vast majority of us love our flag, but before we continue, it is important to ask why we love this flag. To me, and I’m sure many of you, we love this flag because of the freedoms and powers it represents. Perhaps the one value that every single American holds in highest regard is the right to freedom of speech and expression. So important is this belief, that it is the first amendment to our constitution. Here is the full text of that amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Now, many individuals whose beliefs align with category three will go on to say that they fully support the first amendment, however, they do not believe that a football stadium is the right place to express political views. But to that I would ask:

Which clause in the first amendment prohibits a peaceful protest at a football field? Nowhere in the text does it state “…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, unless they are at a football game”. According to the full text of the amendment laid out above, players in the NFL are well within the bounds of the first amendment when they kneel during the national anthem. Just because something upsets you does not make it illegal. Trump supporters should know this well.

Moving on, the heavy majority of NFL players are black, and I would argue that professional sports is perhaps the most powerful platform for black activism in our country. How many of you have been to a BLM rally? How many of you watch the games on Sunday? My point exactly.

Can you think of a better platform for our black community to make a point about an injustice they see in society? While CEO’s can author powerful statements of dissent when the government does something they dislike, and politicians can deliver fiery speeches to the same end, leaders of the African American community, who are often times athletes, have used the field as their platform. Why is this wrong of them? If we want to take this platform away from African Americans, we should also probably lock Donald Trump out of his Twitter account.

So the argument that a football field is not the proper platform for this discussion is baseless and in no way backed up by any reasonable argument. But what about the individuals imploring these athletes to “stick to sports”?

Once again, I would refer you to the text of our first amendment. Where in the amendment does it call for freedom of speech for all citizens unless they play a professional sport?

Lastly, and most importantly, I would like to address the opinion that these protests are an affront to American heroes who have fought and died for this flag. This is the angle that the commander in chief Donald Trump has taken, so it is certainly worth discussing. Never mind that Donald Trump, who deferred enlistment into the Vietnamese war five times, stated that John McCain is “not a hero” because he was captured. Never mind that he called former FBI director James Comey a “nut” to high ranking Russian officials before going on to reveal top secret information to them. Instead, let’s focus on this issue in a vacuum.

Millions of Americans have fought and died defending our flag, and every single one of them deserves to be honored. Kneeling during the anthem is not intended to disrespect these men and women who gave their lives, but rather it is an enforcement of what they fought for. Throughout our nation’s history, we have fought for the right to a democratic system that afforded equal rights to all citizens. One of those rights, which we just discussed, is the right to express personal views without fear of retribution. These battles were fought in the American Revolution, they were fought during the Civil War, they were fought in Europe and Asia during World War II.

In other words, millions of men and women have died fighting for a country that allows others to express views that you might not agree with.

We cannot only abide by our constitution when it is easy for us to do. Democracy is difficult, emotional, and complicated. That is because human beings are difficult, emotional, and complicated. These players have a right to kneel if they choose, and you have a right to be upset if you choose. What you do not have a right to however, is to take away first amendment protections to these individuals because they are expressing a view you don’t agree with.

Rather, it would be my hope that both sides could reach out to one another and determine what can be done in our society to get these young men standing again.

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