Let Sports Be Political

Last Friday night at a rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump called for those NFL players who knelt during the national anthem at games to be fired. He was referring to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year in protest of police brutality against black men. Others have recently kneeled in protest and in solidarity with their fellow football player Kaepernick, also starting the twitter hashtag #ImWithKap.

During Sunday’s fourteen games, NFL players knelt or refused to leave the locker room when the “Star Spangled Banner” played. This show of solidarity, a silent rebuff against President Trump, led our him to tweet in retaliation. He tweeted that the NFL should “fire or suspend” the players, that the league should “back our country,” and that this will cause “bad ratings.” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, took it a step further on ABC’s This Week, saying “they have the right to have their First Amendment off the field.”

I have one pressing question for the Trump administration: Why do American football players lose their freedom of speech when they are on the field? The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” There is no asterisk stating: “freedom of speech is only applicable when not playing a sport.” Some argue that, by kneeling, the players are disrespecting America. By publicly attacking these players, the Trump administration dangerously contradicts established legal precedence.  

In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court found that the state may only punish speech that would incite "imminent lawless action.” Kneeling in protest, while it can be construed as offensive, does not incite others to break the law. In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled that even symbolic expressions like burning the American flag are legal. This line of logic finds that the government cannot stop football players from kneeling during the national anthem. It finds that NFL players have their First Amendment rights even while on the field.

Trump’s and his administration's attempt to shame the players blatantly ignores American law and values. What makes America great is that, unlike in countries with repressive authoritarian regimes, one is allowed (and even encouraged) to protest when the state is malfunctioning. One can criticize the government and its actions.

Football players are in a place of privilege because football is so beloved by Americans. Julius Thomas of the Miami Hurricanes put it best: “lots of people don’t have a voice and I wanted to tell those folks that they’re not alone. I used my position to try to empower everybody who seeks equality.” Contrary to what President Trump says, football players should use their stardom to highlight societal problems because democracy requires active political engagement in order to flourish.  So I say, kneel on.