Opinion: Don’t fumble the First Amendment

Thinking of football, we nor­mally consider tailgates and touchdowns to be the attrac­tions of one of America’s most popu­lar sports. However, football has gained a new spotlight in the media as a medium for communicating about social justice issues. Just this past week during several football games, multiple NFL backed teams — as well as high school and even peewee football teams — have had players and coaches take a kneel dur­ing the national anthem.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the possibility that football could be an effective medium of protest, how­ever the idea of using sports seems to be ingenious. Sports are a big factor of American life, receiving wide­spread media focus and an extensive fan following. Therefore, if someone or some team wanted to address a serious issue, then the field becomes a stage to make a statement or sym­bolic gesture that will garner large discussion and support.

A good example was the 1968 Summer Olympics, where two Afri­can-American sportsmen, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, used a raised fist gesture to signify support for the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. These figures received widespread criticism for their actions back home and were suspended from the U.S. team and prohibited from staying in the Olympic Village. How­ever, their actions were one of the most widely seen photos of the 1968 Games at that time, and they gener­ated a large discussion and focus on African-American struggles.

Some, however, feel that these symbolic gestures are hurtful to the cohesion of sports fans and citizens alike — kneeling or protesting during the national anthem can be seen as disrespectful or an act of anger or shame toward one’s nation. The na­tional anthem is widely perceived as a symbol of pride for one’s country and the sacrifices of the many who helped create and protect it. Let’s be clear: none of the players hate the country we live in — and this is a widely misconstrued interpretation of the protests by its critics. The pro­tests are aimed at America’s long his­tory of racial discrimination and strife, and how continued profiling by law enforcement and other forms of discrimination still persist today. Many NFL players of color — as well as white players — have voiced sup­port for the protests and are sympa­thetic to their players’ views or expe­riences with racial bias, even if they do have certain disagreements.

It is important to note that these protests have gotten such attention and criticism that the NFL has begun to consider suspending or firing play­ers who protest due to its distractive quality and negative effect on ratings. Even President Trump has alluded to potential punishments for those who don’t stand for the anthem or respect the flag, and has recently suggested a boycott of the NFL if the protests continue. This should be concerning to any American, no matter how they feel about the protests, as the sugges­tion of a private entity — let alone the government — censoring its em­ployees is a blatant violation of these players’ civil liberties and right to free speech. And although private entities can fire employees for their beliefs or opinions, it doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Whether or not the protests have any meaning to us, the players do have a right to make whatever statements they desire, and no institution or gov­ernment should be allowed to restrain them. While the issue of racial fric­tion and discrimination still give our country much work to do in the form of civil discussion and finding solu­tions to current problems, the threat of censorship should have no part in this discussion. Players and fans alike should be able to voice their ideas and criticisms how they choose — for it’s one of the longest and most infamous American pastimes we have.