The NFL and its 32 team owners have introduced a policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem. Those refusing to do so have two options: stay in the locker room until “The Star Spangled Banner” ends, or risk being fined for noncompliance. This is an obvious violation of players’ First Amendment rights. And the issue is inescapably about race.
According to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 94 percent of NFL franchise owners and 75 percent of head coaches are white. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and most of the league’s top executives are white. Blacks own majority stakes in none of the 32 teams. Only seven NFL head coaches in 2017 were black. Yet 70 percent of NFL players are black. This new policy clearly signals white control of black players’ bodies and rights to kneel in peaceful protest against police brutality and other racial issues during the national anthem. Put differently, a majority white group of overseers created and will enforce a policy restricting black players’ freedom of expression. The power is seemingly not with those who use their bodies to earn $7.8 billion for their teams and the league, but rather with whites who profit most from their labor.
The protests the league seeks to drive out of public view are also about race. Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players have been kneeling in opposition to various manifestations of racial injustice in America. In essence, this new plan conveys to players that the league does not care about racism, and that its mostly black players are expected to find other platforms through which to protest. It also signals that the league is only interested in black men as laborers and entertainers, not as citizens with the right to use their influence to awaken our nation’s racial consciousness, disrupt racism and improve circumstances for members of their communities who are harmed by racist policies and practices.
Contrast the NFL’s action, and the joy with which President Donald Trump and his allies have greeted it, with the spurious outrage over alleged violations of freedom of expression on college campuses. As it happens, I testified on Capitol Hill this week in a House Oversight Committee hearing about freedom of speech on campuses.
The hearing reminded me that conservatives only seem to be outraged about particular forms of speech suppression, usually when it involves their self interests. As I told lawmakers, race is rarely explicitly discussed in debates about free speech, but so many recent controversies on campuses are about race (as are the NFL players’ protests). During the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., showed a large photo of a restricted speech zone on a college campus that was about the size of a parking space for one car. He argued, and I agreed, that speech ought not be limited in that way. Meadows and other conservatives in the hearing fiercely argued that speech zones are unconstitutional. But restricting NFL players’ activism to locker rooms and penalizing those who decide against standing for the national anthem is no different, especially when the policy is prompted by fear of angering Trump.
How can players and fans who oppose racial injustice and support efforts to protest against it resist this new NFL policy?
Players should sue the league for its efforts to suppress their freedom of expression. As for fans, many black football enthusiasts began boycotting the NFL last season as a show of solidarity with Kaepernick and other activist players who chose to take a knee. I was one of those fans. A trio of social media hashtags united us: #BlackOutNFL, #ImWithKaep and #ImWithKap. Until the league revises what I see as an undeniably racist policy, black fans should continue our boycott. Others who care about racial justice, players’ rights and the First Amendment should join us.
When football players at the University of Missouri threatened in 2015 not to play in an upcoming game as a demonstration of their opposition to racism on their campus, I argued that black student-athletes are the most powerful people at schools with big-time sports programs. In the NFL, the power dynamic is even clearer: There is no NFL without 70 percent of its players. Now it is time for these powerful black men to regain control of their bodies and platforms to protest social issues that are most important to them. They can force the league and its fans - and Trump, who last year suggested “son of a bitch” NFL protesters be fired and now says players who don’t stand on the field for the anthem “shouldn’t be in the country” - to respect their rights to protest racism. Black athletes can reclaim their power by suing the league.
Shaun Harper is a professor and executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California.