The NFL – Not a bastion of free speech

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By Benjamin Solomon, Staff Writer

The NFL recently held a meeting with team owners, players, and NFL executives to decide on whether the league would allow players to kneel in protest during the national anthem.

The outcome is that players will be allowed to continue to kneel, a practice started by Colin Kaepernick a year ago to bring attention to police brutality against Black Americans. This is a surprising decision, given the NFL’s history with free speech.

The league has recently shut down free speech in the case of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who in 2016 was fined $18,000 for wearing different colored cleats. The cleats were meant to honor a reporter, Craig Sager, who died of cancer.

This was one of several instances in the last 10 years in which the NFL has punished players for uniform violations according to a letter to the editor in Florida Today.

This includes but is not limited to several instances of miss-colored cleats, shirts, and differently colored eye black. These are also all cases in which there was a message intended. Former quarterbacks Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos and Robert Griffin III of the Cleveland Browns were both made to alter their appearance in relation to expression about religion.

In 2012, Tebow wore eye black with a Bible verse number on it which he had to take off, while in 2014 Griffin wore a shirt that referenced Jesus and was made to turn it inside out.

DeAngelo Williams, running back for the Pittsburg Steelers, was fined over $5,000 in 2015 for wearing eye black that said “Find the Cure,” in reference to breast cancer. This is notable because breast cancer is far less of a controversial topic than religion, or the Black Lives Matter kneeling protests of today.

The NFL also refused to allow the Dallas Cowboys to wear a decal meant to honor fallen police officers in 2016. This was after several officers were targeted and killed in a shooting earlier that year, in Dallas.

This could be viewed as political, as the debate about the Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter reaction movement was relevant to the shooting. The shooter, Micah Johnson, reportedly plainly wanted to kill white police officers.

Aside from the kneeling protest, the NFL has not tolerated expression of any sort. It does make sense that the organization might be strict in order to prevent unneeded controversy. After all, the NFL is a non-profit, but it still wants to keep its viewership high and allowing the network to become a forum for unrelated issues may drive away these viewers.

This history shows just how unusual it is that the NFL is allowing these protests to continue, especially given their political nature.

To be clear, as the NFL is a private entity it does not have to allow any speech they do not approve of. First amendment rights only apply to preventing censorship by the government.

Free speech in this context is not about whether one’s rights are being violated, but simply about what the NFL wants to be associated with it. Allowing these protests is a sign that the NFL is okay with being part of this debate.

The debate is sure to continue as most of the Houston Texans team knelt during the Anthem in response to comments from their owner, Bob McNair.

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