Taking a Knee for the Country

Freedom of Speech

The United States is known for its first amendment, freedom of speech. Although this is one of the most popular and frequently used amendement, it also can be misunderstood and misrepresented. Recently in the NFL there has been peaceful protests which include kneeling during the national anthem. This has caused a lot of controversy throughout America. Is kneeling during the national anthem being disrespectful to those who made this country and those who fight for this country? Is freedom of speech enough of an explanation to protect these players? These are some questions that are constantly being debated.

On August 14th 2016, during the preseason of the NFL, San Francisco’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit during the national anthem. His protest went unnoticed the first two preseason games, but the third game, as he continued to sit during the national anthem, attention soon rushed upon him (Sandritter). There was lots of criticism on why he was sitting and protesting. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color, to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder" (Sandritter). Kaepernick said.

Fast forwarding to the 2017-18 NFL season, there are more and more players and teams sitting and kneeling during the national anthem. This has caused an outrage for lots of Americans. Week three of the regular season has had the most number of players protesting. This number was around 200 players that took a knee. Week three was the week directly after Trump had tweeted calling for all NFL owners to fire players who proceed to protest. Trump also referred to the players protesting as “sons of bitches” (Wilson). Since week three, there has been a decrease in players taking a knee, but the protests are still continuing.

The controversy about why players are protesting and if it is constitutional and respectful to the armed forces is what is making this protest so popular. The players who have decided to kneel during the national anthem state that they aren’t disrespecting the flag and the armed forces (that is the last thing they want to do) but that they are trying to bring light to the inequality in America when it comes to people of color and police brutality. Are the NFL players in the wrong? Are these protests constitutionally and morally okay?

Let's start off by examining the first 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” (The 1st Amendment). The first amendment clearly states that the people have the right to peacefully protest and petition the government. There is not one instance where things have become violent during the protests. So according to the constitution, the protests are not unconstitutional and the players are using their given rights as Americans to bring up an ongoing issue in the country.

The NFL has not publicly came out with a statement on the protests, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out when a reporter asked him about his view on the situation. This is what Goodell had to say. "Well, I think it's one of those things where I think we have to understand that there are people with different viewpoints. It's something that I think everybody wants. The national anthem is a special moment to me. It's a point of pride. That is a really important moment, but we also have to understand the other side that people do have rights and we want to respect those,but there's a time and a place. And that's what we all have to sort of understand. The responsibility of doing it at the right time and in the right way. And what we see is a lot of players going into the community and really taking the platform they have and being active and creating dialogue and actually making really positive change. And that's what I think is so important. Protest to progress is what I call it” (Orr). Goodell states that the national anthem is important to him, but he also wants his players to be able to express themselves and make a change.

One important question that is asked is can the NFL fire these players for protesting and should they? NFL players are citizens. They have their rights as humans and as Americans. These players are employed by private companies (private companies are the teams that make up the NFL, each team is owned by someone), whose owners have these same rights. Things get complicated though because since these players are playing for private companies, it is ultimately the company's decision to keep/fire the players. For example, if a NFL private company were to write into their contract “We are restricting your freedom of speech” and the player signed their name on this contract, then yes, they did sign their freedom of speech away and have to obey the companies views on issues as long as they are playing for the team, but right now there are no contracts that take away players freedom of speech (Kelly).

Next is to look into the NFL rulebook and the Games Operations Departments manual. When the protests started getting nationwide attention, there was a facebook post that went viral referencing section “a62 63” of the rulebook stating that all players and coaches had to be out on the field and standing during the national anthem (Fitzpatrick). This post could easily be believable, but if looked into with more detail it is actually very problematic. The NFL rulebook states nothing about the national anthem. In Sports Illustrated, an article stated that this section was not in the NFL rulebook, but it was in the League’s Game Operations Department manual. This manual is very difficult to find anywhere online and an online article from Deadspin stated that this manual is being kept very tightly within the NFL industry and they have only released a few copies to the public. The most recent updated manual found online was from 2007, Volume II and there was nothing stated about the national anthem, but Volume I, III, IV were not able to be found. Although Deadspin is not a strong resource as it is very biased against the NFL and players taking a knee, it was one of the only sources that had information about the Games Operations Departments manual, but the manual they referred to was from 2004, which has be re-updated since then. Along with this article on Deadspin there was a tweet from Kevin Seifert, a national reporter for ESPN, referring to this specific policy in the game operations manual, in full text:

“National Anthem

The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to the players and coaches that we continued to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses (Moskovitz).”

Sports Illustrated also had this same quote stating it was from the game operations manual, but instead of fact checking the reality, they emphasized on the use of the word “may” when this rule started talking about disciplinary actions, which goes back to if players could get fired for not standing for the national anthem. This also is the same exact text used on the viral facebook post about the rulebook, which had multiplied misleading facts. Kevin Seifert did not have any other source cited except when he stated it was from the game operations manual, which is pretty impossible to find anywhere online. So the actual fact vs. fake of the national anthem rule regarding the NFL is very foggy.

These are the facts about the protests, but when it comes to judgement on if the protests are morally okay, it depends on the person. It is very difficult to change someone’s mind and viewpoint. Many Americans take these protests to heart, but how they take it to heart is different. This issue can be split into three different groups. The first side, sides very heavily with patriotism and how the idea of not standing the for the national anthem is very disrespectful not only to the country, but to those who have and are still actively fighting to protect this country. In some cases, when fans saw players, especially their favorites, kneel during the national anthem, they burned their jerseys because they wanted to show disrespect to the players disrespecting the country. The second side is in the middle. They see and feel for both sides of the issues. They understand that these players have their freedom of speech and are trying to stand up for a cause that is currently a real issue in America, but also think that this could be protested in a different way where people wouldn’t get offended as much. The third side does not see these protests as disrespect to the country or those who serve and believe that the message about racial inequality and police brutality would not be as widely recognized without these specific protests.

It is hard to know if there will be a solution to everything going on within the NFL league and the views and publicity brought upon them. Again, everyone is different and everyone has their own point of view. It is no surprise that there is racial inequality in America. And it is no surprise that veterans are honored in America for being great heroes. Each side does not mean to disrespect each other. The first amendment is one of the most popular and used amendment for a reason. Freedom of speech is not easy to interpret and is not clearly specified leaving it to be analyzed differently depending on certain situations and cases.

One thing is, no matter what differences, Americans stand with each other. When Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch kneeled in peaceful protest during the national anthem, Derek Carr stood next to him with his hand on his shoulder in support. This just goes to show that people, no matter what differences, can support each other with opposing issues, while also respecting and standing up for their personal issues. An analogy that is heartfelt and sensitive to the NFL protests right now can be explained simply like this. During sports, when someone is injured whether it be from your own team or the competitor, players take a knee in respect for the injured player. Right now, the country is injured and the players are taking a knee in hope that things will get better.

Work Cited

Belson, Ken. “Colin Kaepernick, Who Began Anthem Kneeling, Files Complaint Against N.F.L.” New York Times, 15 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/15/sports/colin-kaepernick-nfl-collusion.html.

Bretherton, Luke. “Perspective | Taking a Knee Has Always Been a Sign of Reverence, Not Disrespect.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Sept. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/taking-a-knee-has-always-been-a-sign-of-reverence-not-disrespect/2017/09/28/8e91981e-a3c9-11e7-8cfe-d5b912fabc99_story.html?utm_term=.8ed712227afb.

Fitzpatrick, Alex. “Here's What NFL Rules Say About Standing for the National Anthem.” Sports Illustrated, 25 Sept. 2017, www.si.com/nfl/2017/09/25/does-nfl-require-players-stand-national-anthem.

Kelly, Meg. “Fact Check: Can the NFL Fire Players for Protesting?” Washington Post, 4 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/fact-check-can-the-nfl-fire-players-for-protesting/2017/10/05/2c4d4212-a963-11e7-9a98-07140d2eed02_video.html?utm_term=.1ee0ff746622.

Moskovitz, Diana. “The NFL Quietly Changed Its Obscure Rule About Standing For The National Anthem.” Deadspin, 9 Oct. 2017, deadspin.com/the-nfl-quietly-changed-its-obscure-rule-about-standing-1819300660.

NFL, SB Nation. “What Are Players Protesting When Kneeling for the National Anthem?” SBNation.com, SBNation.com, 28 Sept. 2017, www.sbnation.com/2017/9/28/16376500/nfl-protests-2017-kneeling-national-anthem-why.

Orr, Conor. “Roger Goodell Offers Opinion on Anthem Protests.” NFL, 15 Aug. 2017, www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000829979/article/roger-goodell-offers-opinion-on-anthem-protests.

Sandritter, Mark. “Timeline of Kaepernick's Protests.” Sbnation, 25 Sept. 2017, www.sbnation.com/2016/9/11/12869726/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protest-seahawks-brandon-marshall-nfl.

“The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center – The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, constitutioncenter.org /interactive-constitution/ amendments/amendment-i.

Wilson, Ryan & Eye on Football. “NFL Anthem Protests Tracker: Beast Mode Calls out Donald Trump, Boos Greet Players.” CBSSports.com, 4 Oct. 2017, www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/nfl-anthem-protests-tracker-beast-mode-calls-out-donald-trump-boos-greet-players/.

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