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NFL Ban on Kneeling Not a ‘Free Speech’ Issue

Last week the NFL announced that the national anthem rule for 2018 requires players to stand. After a season of sparse attendance at games and low television ratings, it appears the NFL owners have decided to try to put an end to the controversial kneeling during the anthem by doling out punishment to players and fines to teams for noncompliance. The backlash from players has been swift with many angrily denouncing the decision. The new policy has also been attacked by some on the right who decry the League’s attack on ‘free-speech.’

David French, a senior writer at National Review, wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he labeled those in favor of the policy a “conservative mob” and the policy itself to be “corporate censorship.”

New York Times – The United States is in the grips of a free-speech paradox. At the same time that the law provides more protection to personal expression than at any time in the nation’s history, large numbers of Americans feel less free to speak. The culprit isn’t government censorship but instead corporate, community and peer intimidation.

Conservatives can recite the names of the publicly shamed from memory. There was Brendan Eich, hounded out of Mozilla for donating to a California ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and woman. There was James Damore, abruptly terminated from Google after he wrote an essay attributing the company’s difficulty in attracting female software engineers more to biology and free choice than to systemic discrimination. On campus, the list is as long and grows longer every semester.

It is right to decry this culture of intolerance and advocate for civility and engagement instead of boycotts and reprisals. The cure for bad speech is better speech — not censorship. Take that message to the heartland, and conservatives cheer.

Until, that is, Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel. Until, that is, the president demanded that the N.F.L. fire the other players who picked up on his protest after he was essentially banished from the league.

That was when the conservative mob called for heads to roll. Conform or face the consequences.

On Wednesday, the mob won. The N.F.L. announced its anthem rules for 2018, and the message was clear: Respect the flag by standing for the national anthem or stay in the locker room. If you break the rules and kneel, your team can be fined for your behavior.

This isn’t a “middle ground,” as the N.F.L. claims. It’s not a compromise. It’s corporate censorship backed up with a promise of corporate punishment. It’s every bit as oppressive as the campus or corporate attacks on expression that conservatives rightly decry.

French doesn’t see the differences in the NFL, Mozilla, and Google circumstances. In the Mozilla matter, Brendan Eich was the CEO and one of the co-founders of the company when he was forced out of the company he helped create due to private donations he made to political campaigns being made public. One of the donations was to California’s Proposition 8, which was to have prevented homosexual marriage. By all accounts, Mozilla was a gay-friendly company, Eich kept his personal beliefs out of the workplace and he made no statements or attempts to change Mozilla’s policy of inclusiveness.

At Google, James Damore chose to write a ten-page memo arguing that women are not as biologically suited for coding jobs as men. After his personal memo became public, the public backlash against Google was speedy and Damore was terminated.

In the NFL, players who choose to kneel during the national anthem do so while in uniform and acting as representatives of the National Football League and their respective teams.

Why are the differences here not more obvious to French?

Eich kept his personal beliefs out of the workplace. Damore brought his misogyny to the workplace and damaged Google’s public reputation. The NFL players bring their personal beliefs to the workplace and damage the NFL’s public reputation.

Eich is the only one getting a raw deal. While I still believe Mozilla had every right to oust him, it does make the company extremely hypocritical after claiming to be a ‘diverse’ company, yet getting rid of a cofounder for his personal beliefs.

Damore and the NFL players chose to use their places of employment as platforms for their personal beliefs. Doing so makes their employers ersatz advocates for said beliefs if there are no consequences for their actions. Anyone who saw the lackluster attendance at NFL games last season could see there was a large portion of the public who chose to spurn the NFL after the actions of their players. If the NFL chooses to penalize the players and their teams for actions that do harm to the reputation and income of the NFL, that is absolutely their right.

“Corporate censorship” as French calls it is certainly not what this is. No one has a right to use the platform of their employment to make political statements. If an employer chooses to allow personal political statements, that is their decision.

As Ben Shapiro mentioned, “College campuses are specifically designated as places for free exchange of ideas. NFL games are not.” When people attend or tune in to an NFL game, they want to see some football being played, not political statements.

The NFL is a business and it has been hemorrhaging income over the last year due to its players making political statements. If the NFL chooses to take steps to put an end to it, that is absolutely their right, just as it is my right to continue not watching NFL games, no matter if there are statements or not.

French says the NFL should continue to allow players to kneel during the anthem.

The N.F.L. should let players kneel. If it lets them kneel, it increases immeasurably the chances that when they do rise, they will rise with respect and joy, not fear and resentment. That’s the “winning” America needs.

First, French is forgetting that without fans, the NFL will eventually fold. While I’d be fine with that, I’m sure the owners wouldn’t be. Second, I believe it’s unlikely that the players who ever kneel would eventually “rise with respect and joy.” And lastly, I’m sure there are many like me who aren’t coming back to the NFL no matter their policy on kneeling. They already lost me and no policy change on kneeling is going to bring me back. Business decisions have consequences and so do the actions of employees. That’s why French is wrong.

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