By Jack Deschauer, Senior Vice President, LEVICK
& Silas Hill, Fellow, LEVICK
On Friday, for the third consecutive game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans and minorities in the United States. The subsequent media coverage and social media exposure has led to a healthy national dialogue on athletes as civil rights activists. Kaepernick invited the attention on himself, but he has also thrust the NFL into an unenviable position: defend free speech and tacitly endorse on-field political activism, or censure the quarterback and put itself in dangerous first-amendment territory.
To be clear, the NFL has no rule mandating players to stand during the national anthem. However, the NFL does have a questionable record of overstepping legal boundaries to persecute perceived injustice.
So far the NFL has stayed in its lane by offering an intentionally anemic statement: “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”
For now, a policy of neutrality works best for the NFL. However, the NFL must have a contingency plan in place if other players join Kaepernick in protest or if fans start boycotting games. If the league is forced to act based on either scenario, Commissioner Roger Goodell should emphasize a commitment to league rules and stand by the players’ rights to freedom of speech.
The NFL can turn to the NBA for a case study. In 2014, LeBron James and other basketball stars wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during pregame warm-ups in honor of Eric Garner, a black man who died after a confrontation with New York City police.
After intense scrutiny, the NBA responded with a statement from Commissioner Adam Silver, who said he “respects Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.”
Crucially, the statement acknowledges players’ freedom of speech while reminding players of their contractual obligation to wear Adidas-branded clothing during pregame warm-ups. Fortunate for Goodell, the NFL and its national anthem policy don’t have to contend with their apparel provider.
With more athletes and celebrities becoming socially active and engaging in movements like Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick’s protest is unlikely to be a one-off. With careful and delicate messaging, the NFL has an opportunity to showcase how it is sympathetic towards a player’s right to express himself, even in protest regarding an issue as delicate and demarcating as police treatment of minorities.
Demonstrating true compassion for its athletes’ civil liberties should start to help mend broken fences with the players and fans after years of botched investigations and random player discipline, player lockouts, and concussion crises.
In the future, the NFL’s response to acts of protest can be simple and straightforward. There’s nothing more American than football… but nothing American about silencing a dissenting voice.