I’m a huge fan of the Bill of Rights. My friends can corroborate that, because if anyone has been drinking, I don’t let them leave the house until I’m sure they understand that they have a Fourth Amendment right not to take a breathalyzer test if accused of being a minor in possession and a Fifth Amendment right not to talk to the police. One time I stood on a chair and didn’t let anyone leave the house until they listened to me list off all 10 amendments from the Bill of Rights and explain their implications. I just think it’s so cool we live in a country that guarantees us those rights. Not every country does that. We take it for granted.
One of the most important rights we have in this country is the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Think about it: Our constitution promises we are allowed to express our discontent with the government. Thousands of brave members of our military gave up their lives so we can have this right. And on Wednesday, the N.F.L. took that right away from its players, just like that.
Before I sound like an idiot, let me clarify I’m well aware the N.F.L. is a private institution, and its new policy doesn’t actually infringe upon the players’ First Amendment rights. I’m not accusing the N.F.L. of fascism. However, freedom of expression is one of the core values of the United States. If the N.F.L.’s goal is to be patriotic and respectful to the sacrifices that our military has made for our freedom, then penalizing players for exercising their First Amendment rights is one of the worst decisions it could make.
Throughout the past few years, I’ve grown to be incredibly appreciative of our right to protest. There’s nothing more American than being politically engaged and speaking up for what you believe. In some countries, speaking out against the government gets you killed. Here? When we elected a president who many see as misogynistic, we responded with the Women’s March, which was the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. One of my best friends flew out to Washington, D.C., to protest the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade by participating in the March for Life. Other friends protested the lack of gun control legislation by participating in the March for Our Lives. I’m so thankful to live in a country where the military has fought so bravely to protect my right to protest.
If you want to exercise this right to protest, there’s no better place to do it than on the football field. Sports are America’s favorite pastime. Think about the Big House: How many games in a row has it housed over 100,000 people? And think about how diverse this group of 100,000 people is — people of all different political ideologies, racial identities and socioeconomic statuses. (Sometimes the Big House even holds Buckeyes, and I can’t think of another circumstance where I would be so close to people so utterly different from me.) Or think about the Super Bowl, which is consistently America’s most-watched television program every year. You would be hard-pressed to find an event or gathering that gathers as much mass appeal in the U.S. as American sports. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, for as long as American sports have existed, they’ve been a primary breeding ground for U.S. social and political movements.
This is exactly what free-agent N.F.L. players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid had in mind when they decided to use their platform to protest police brutality. Reid explains in his op-ed for the New York Times, “I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement … We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless.”
When Kaepernick decided he was going to exercise his right to protest, he went to great lengths to ensure he did so without disrespecting military personnel, those who fought for him to have that right. At first, he sat down during the national anthem. However, as Reid explains, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
It’s not as though the players turn away from the flag or talk during the anthem. They look at the flag with reverence. They just do it while down on one knee.
Reid explains further, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”
Throughout the past couple of years, more and more athletes have participated in the protest, and almost all of them have emphasized their intent is not to disrespect the military. To further emphasize their respect, almost every player stood for the national anthem on Veterans Day, even the players who typically protest.
Torrey Smith, a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, said, “They call it the anthem protest. We're not protesting the anthem. It's a protest during the anthem. I understand why people are mad or may be offended when someone takes a knee … My father, when he dies, is going to be buried with an American flag draped around his casket, being that he served in the army."
Can you think of anything more quintessentially American than exercising your right to protest?
I’m really not surprised by the N.F.L.’s policy, though. N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, as well as the league itself, is imperfect. Anyone who follows professional sports knows that’s probably the biggest understatement of all time, but I’ll just leave it at that. What baffles me isn’t the concept that the N.F.L. is a flawed institution. What baffles me is the belief that penalizing American citizens for protesting is somehow respectful of the sacrifices that our military has made.
The N.F.L.’s policy states that if a player wants to protest during the anthem, he must stay in the locker room to do so. To me, this shows an utter lack of awareness for the players’ intentions. Most of them want to observe the anthem. They don’t want to hide out in the locker room and pretend the flag doesn’t exist. If they want to observe the anthem while on one knee, is that really so disrespectful?