NFL Rule Aside, Expect More Protest

Terry H. Schwadron

May 26, 2018

I’m not a very fervent professional football fan; in fact I can go the full season without thinking about the outcome.

By contrast, I suppose I am a big fan of social justice protests — they don’t even have to be American. What people find so critical to their lives, so important to speak out about — well, that’s pretty fascinating. And I’m sensitive to insults, like President Trump calling immigrants — oh, excuse me, members of the MS-13 gang that he associates so closely with immigrants — as “animals.”

But throw all these elements together, as both President Trump and the NFL owners have done in crafting policy that could lead to disciplinary action for players who kneel or otherwise protest during the playing of the national anthem, and you’ve certainly got my attention.

Plus to assure a measure of outrage on my part, please just sprinkle in quotes on Fox & Friendsby the president who said NFL players unwilling to stand for the national anthem should be barred from playing and maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.”

I’m there. Full football outrage — although this seems like it already has been going on for a couple of years.

We should deport citizens for expressing their opinions about policing techniques among black and minority citizens or more generally about what it is like to be black in this country? Trump said he objected to a provision in the new NFL policy that will allow players to stay in the locker room while the anthem is played, but added: “Still, I think it’s good.” He said, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”

Let’s start with the fact that people stage protests in places where they think the protest will be noticed. Thus, in the sports world, which is dominated by players of color, moments of focused attention seem like the perfect time to note that all is not well in our world. Sure, it can be irritating to some, but that’s what this democracy experiment is supposed to be all about.

Plus, the anthem is all but un-singable and strangely militaristically morose, and who thinks people are watching the singing of the anthem on television in any case? And, we should remember, the Supreme Court has upheld acts up to and including the burning of the American Flag as constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

But under pressure from Trump and his supporters, NFL owners caved, declaring the take-a-knee movement an unpatriotic slap at American traditions and unity. Their out: Protesting players can stay in the locker room until the anthem has been played.

This is not going to last, obviously. People who don’t even care about football, anthems, patriotic displays and the rest are going to make sure they protest publicly.

The new policy, announced after a two-day meeting of the league’s 32 owners, leaves it to individual teams to discipline players for acts deemed disrespectful during the anthem but also gives the league wide discretion to fine teams for actions taken by players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said afterward that the objective is to “have people to be respectful of the national anthem.” Players are supposed to follow rules in the private league, but then, players are represented by a union, which is supposed to have some say in the creation of new workplace rules. In this case, the union did not.

In the meantime, at least one owner said he would pay any fines for his team players, and people on all sides are pointing to the NBA, the basketball cousin, which has rejected any such rules.

Basically — no one will be surprised to learn — there is little constitutional backing for the President’s political wishes.

More interesting, perhaps, is the notion that the owners acted because they saw a business backlash as protests grew.

Still, very little of the field-side knees-during-anthem incidents have prompted the very people who say that this is the wrong venue for discussion of social justice issues to discuss those social justice issues.

Meanwhile, players are reportedly discussing different forms of protestingin response to the new NFL policy.

When 1960s civil rights protesters staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters or libraries, they were providing a visual picture of the way things ought to be — blacks and whites sitting together, treated equally. When Labor union strikers form picket line barriers at the gates to the factories they intend to idle. Protesters stage marches on the National Mall in Washington, in eyeshot of those elected to the Congress, mimicking military advances — a metaphorical threat that Members of Congressmen had better heed or be overrun at the ballot box.

Protesting is part of who we are as Americans.

Rather than make the protests the issue, think of how much good the President and the NFL could do to highlight the excesses of police shootings of black citizens. I’m heartened by the fact that multimillionaire sports figures want to make sure the world knows that there is a problem with social justice.

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