Jeanne Hruska and Albert Scherr: Patriotism is cheapened when the NFL reduces it to a forced act

  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (right) laughs with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft before a news conference on Jan. 31. The NFL announced last week that teams will be fined if their players kneel during the national anthem. AP file

Published: 5/27/2018 12:20:22 AM

On Wednesday, the NFL decided that, in football, only one, very specific form of conduct shows patriotism. If you are an NFL football player, you may show patriotism only by standing during the national anthem. It has told players that from this day forward, kneeling is unpatriotic. If you kneel during the national anthem then, by definition, you are so unpatriotic that your team will be fined and that team may develop their own rules as to what to do with you.

Legally, this is not a First Amendment violation because no governmental action is involved, only the action of a private entity, the NFL. But, the spirit of the First Amendment, as much a part of our culture as it is a part of the Constitution, just died in the NFL on Wednesday.

The NFL is supposedly acting to uphold “patriotism,” and yet its actions disrespect one of our most inherently American values. How can peaceful speech be unpatriotic, but forced ritualistic compliance passes muster?

Would those owners feel the same way if players knelt to pray during the anthem? Or is it only when the act becomes “political” that there is a “patriotism” problem?

Nonviolent protests, an unequivocal form of speech, are a pillar of American history and have proven instrumental in securing social change. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to the Women’s March, to the student walkouts this year, people have inspired the country forward, one protest at a time. The NFL just backhanded American history.

Taking a knee is nonviolent. It is nonconfrontational. It peacefully expresses a viewpoint about a profoundly difficult and entrenched issue in America: racism. An issue that is deeply personal and real for many of the NFL’s predominantly black players.

The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are undeniable. Black people, particularly black men, are disproportionately shot by police, arrested, convicted, sentenced to longer prison terms, disciplined in the classroom – the list goes on.

Most NFL players are not Tom Brady or J.J. Watt. They do not have advertising deals. They are not interviewed after games and are not discussed on ESPN. The only time they might be on camera other than in the middle of a play on the field is during the anthem. Their decision to kneel in order to draw attention to the injustice of the American justice system does not prevent any other player or audience member from standing. It does not obstruct their view of the flag. It does not silence the sound of the anthem playing. It just riles some of the NFL’s precious viewers.

The NFL profits mightily from black players, but now refuses to grant them the dignity and respect of being an individual. Players are employed by their team, and shall do as the team commands.

Patriotism cannot be reduced to a few formulaic acts. Patriotism is not standing during the anthem or knowing every word of the pledge of allegiance. Rather, patriotism is what we make it to be, and the NFL cheapens it by reducing it to a single, forced act.

Young Granite Staters have taken or considered taking a knee during the anthem, showing support for their sports heroes and for the cause of racial justice. What message is the NFL sending to its young fans when it says, “Shut up and play ball.” What you think, doesn’t matter. How you feel, doesn’t matter. You are not a human. You are not a citizen. You have no voice. Except the voice the NFL chooses to give you.

Are these young people supposed to still dream about one day playing in a league that will silence them? Is an NFL paycheck supposed to be sufficient payment for their silence? As soon as they get to one of the biggest stages in America, they are supposed to hit mute? Or hide in the locker room?

Over the past two years, there were some who said they would, and maybe they did, stop watching football because of players kneeling during the anthem. We cannot say how this policy will influence NFL viewership. But, speaking for two, we will no longer tune in to football Sunday if this policy stands come opening day.

(Jeanne Hruska is the policy director for the ACLU-NH. Albert “Buzz” Scherr is a professor at UNH Law School. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions of the University of New Hampshire or its School of Law.)

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