Without looking at a calendar you can tell autumn is just weeks away by simply observing the presence of ripening blackberries on the vine, back-to-school sales in the stores and outraged tweets from President Trump over NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
During Thursday’s slate of NFL pre-season games a number of players resumed protests from last season and — during the playing of the national anthem — took a knee, raised a fist or remained in the locker room or tunnel, as did three Seattle Seahawks before Seattle’s home game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The next morning, Trump bristled that players were “at it again — taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem,” adding that players “wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define,” and advising them to instead “Be happy, be cool!” and to “Find another way to protest.”
NFL owners in May unilaterally adopted a policy that attempted to smooth over the issue, forbidding players from kneeling or sitting during the anthem but suggesting that players could remain in the locker room during the ceremony. Last month, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to suspend enforcement of that policy while both work on resolving the issue.
That the president would again call a play that has resulted in so much yardage in the past with his base is no surprise, but the tweets will only continue to alienate players and won’t help the NFL owners reach consensus with its teams and players on how to move forward.
Trump bobbled the ball more than a few times in his latest tweets, not the least of which was his admonition for players to put their concerns aside and be “happy” and “cool.”
Those players participating in the protests and fellow players supporting that right have been clear about their reasons, starting with then-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick who two years ago explained, following a series of police shootings, that he wouldn’t stand “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Despite similar messages from others who participated in the protests, Trump and others characterized the demonstrations as showing a lack of respect for the flag, for the nation and for military veterans.
Last season, Malcolm Jenkins, a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles, clarified in a Washington Post commentary why players were taking a knee: “Our demonstrations have never been about the symbols and traditions we use to honor America. They have been about us as citizens making sure we hold America to the ideals and promises that make this country great.”
Nor should players be expected to “find another way to protest.” Placing conditions on when and where protests and demonstrations are acceptable — beyond precautions regarding public safety and disruption of other rights — risks dilution of the freedom of speech for all.
Players, just like any other employee in the workplace, do not forfeit their First Amendment rights while on the field. Employers can set rules of conduct for their employees, but workers can’t be compelled to stand for the national anthem any more than they can be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
And we’ll make that case that, especially compared to staying in the locker room, dropping to one knee is a reasonably respectful method of protest. It makes its point quietly without disrupting the anthem for others, while the athlete remains present as a participant in the ceremony as the anthem plays. A football stadium is certainly large enough for those offended by the sight of a player kneeling or sitting or even raising a fist to look elsewhere, perhaps at the flag itself.
By virtue of their athletic abilities and prowess, professional athletes have been provided a greater opportunity than many of us to broadcast their opinions. Some have used that opportunity to better and more beneficial effect than others. Basketball great LeBron James took the criticism of a media pundit that he should just “shut up and dribble” to produce a documentary series by that name that explores athletes’ growing political presence. (James then followed that by opening a school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio, his hometown.)
Not every athlete will have a message worthy of our consideration when they take a knee or make a statement. But then not every blustery tweet from a public official deserves our attention, either.