With calls to boycott the National Football League and its sponsors, it is up to team owners to combine their leadership skills, respect for their sport and players, respect for their fans, and their patriotism to fix the mess they’ve allowed to escalate with the pre-game National Anthem being used as a forum for protest.
For perspective about why Americans are angry, consider words frequently heard in pre-game National Anthem ceremonies in NFL games: “To honor America and the men and women who serve in her armed forces, please stand for the singing of our National Anthem.” Americans justifiably see player protests during the National Anthem as disrespect for the flag, America, our shared values, and those who have risked their lives for our security and freedoms.
Whatever political or other differences Americans may have, the pre-game National Anthem is a shared and unifying moment among opposing players and fans over something that’s good and common among us. Freedom of conscience and dissent are, of course, treasured American values. However, using the forum of the National Anthem for protest may and should be prohibited by team owners and the league – just as so many other acts and unprofessional exhibitions during games or other businesses are disallowed.
Whatever their intentions, or individual or collective acts of conscience, player protests in that forum are de facto acts of disrespect for America. Thus, to use that moment and forum for protest is divisive, and has no place in the sport regardless of the subjective intents of the players. Liberal supporters of the protests would surely find objection if players were to kneel over abortion, anti-Christianity, or acts of progressive non-police government coercion – and progressives love government coercion.
There has been a false narrative created that team owners’ requiring players to stand for the National Anthem is a First Amendment issue. Since this issue involves no government compulsion, the First Amendment is inapposite here. The solution is also not an attack on the consciences of NFL players. There is plenty of injustice in the world, even in America, and it comes in a variety of ways. Symbolic protests during the pre-game National Anthem are simply the wrong moment and forum regardless of the motive.
NFL teams and players have done wonderful work for their communities, charities, and even sick and dying children. Professional sports have helped break racial barriers. National Anthem protests are destroying an awful lot of goodwill for the sport and business they love, signal disrespect, are setting a bad example for younger people and their families who find joy, inspiration, and life lessons from football.
Since this mess began with Colin Kaepernick’s take-a-knee campaign and its underpinnings of resentment for police, it is important to understand the proper principles of law and order that both keep communities safe from private miscreants and punish law enforcement abuses, which is the essence of the American rule of law. These sound goals of Western civil society go back even further than Sir Matthew Hale’s “The History of Pleas of the Crown” published in the 18th century.
Expressing principles that apply today, Hale described both the needs to protect community safety and to punish law enforcement abuses. Today, those who doth protest too much or those who ignore warts about law enforcement – and both groups include too many politicians and judges – have something to learn from these principles. Civil society, however, must recognize the unique hazards and circumstances police face to keep us safe. Otherwise lawless and violent anarchy would rule.
Schooling his new, knee-jerk reacting mayor in this season’s opening episode of the television show Blue Bloods, Commissioner Frank Reagan marvelously articulated law and order principles expressed by Hale centuries ago:
“There's something you should know about police officers. They know what people are capable of in ways that most, thankfully, do not. They have seen firsthand the cigarette burns on an infant's back or the black eyes and the sideways jaw on an 80-year-old rape victim. And they assume the worst. And they take that on so that good people can go about their lives and think generously about their fellow man. They provide that luxury.”
During the next offseason, every NFL team owner and player should spend a week riding on patrol with police officers. That may give them a better perspective of injustices prevented.
Sports are a microcosm of what people who work together can do to succeed, to learn from failures, to have hope and pride in what they do, and to overcome obstacles that face all of us. NFL team owners and players have the ability to save their sport from ignominy and contempt, and simultaneously demonstrate respect for conscience and dissent protected by our unifying, commonly shared American values.
The solution is simple. Failure here is petty yet bigger than the sport.
Mark J. Fitzgibbons, Esq. is an attorney and co-author with Richard Viguerie of "The Law That Governs Government."