Athletes and Freedom of Speech

While everyone was preparing for the Super Bowl, the latest news about athletes and their controversial statements slid under many Americans’ radar. Daniel Radcliffe—or, as many people know him, Harry Potter—tweeted at Tom Brady to take the MAGA hat out of his locker. He was capitalizing on something that happened more than two years ago. Before the 2016 election, then-candidate Donald Trump had sent the hat to Brady. Since the quarterback’s relation to Trump is old news, I found this to be a cheap comment from Radcliffe. It’s also yet another example of people’s many recent objections to political expression by athletes.

Athletes have the same right to free speech as we do. It does not matter if you are LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady: there is no reason an athlete shouldn’t be able to voice his or her opinions. As we all know, there is no law restricting individuals’ freedom of speech—with a few exceptions that are not applicable to these cases. The U.S. Flag Code, enacted in 1942, describes proper flag etiquette in detail, but it begins with the statement that there are no penalties for violating those guidelines. For example, we are supposed to hold our right hands over our hearts during the National Anthem if the flag is displayed, but not everyone does. The NFL may impose these or other enforceable rules about respecting the flag, but if such a rule is broken by some of its players, they are violating the league’s rules or values, not a law.”

That being said, I want to emphasize the importance of all athletes’ right to political expression. If Tom Brady wants to support President Trump, he should be able to, just as many other athletes support the president and have supported previous presidents. And instead of further angering people who oppose Kaepernick’s and other athletes’ kneeling during the National Anthem, those who favor these (or other left-leaning) protests in the sports world should take the high road and also welcome athletes who are further right on the political spectrum to voice their opinions. We do not have to agree with those who support President Trump, but we should acknowledge their right to support him. The best way to begin a conversation is to understand another’s point of view.

Of course, there are certain situations that do not call for the “high road” approach. If athletes begin to support racism or hate speech, there is no reason to respect this or to give such speech any positive attention. But often, people don’t understand the reasons why an athlete protests, and instantly jump against it. If we begin to research and understand the reasons behind their various protests and political expressions, it will foster better conversations.

Freedom of speech involves allowing all of us to share our voices, and it is important that we hear each other out. I have defended freedom of speech before because I believe it is very important to our understanding one another as Americans. Just as I encouraged our readers to attend the first “Common Ground” event at Hamilton, I encourage everyone to listen to the other side—whichever side that may be. Only when we begin to speak and listen to each other will we make any progress.