The NFL pre-season has never been more controversial. The third week of practice games saw at least six where a player showed one act of protest or another during the renditions of our National Anthem. Scoffing at President Trump’s calls to “fire any son of a b**** who kneels during the National Anthem,” social justice supporting players think their televised antics are protected as free speech under the First Amendment. Legal experts are quick to advise the assumption is just not true and they could lose their high paid careers at any time.
“There is no federal law protecting against discrimination or retaliation for political activity at private companies. A lot of people think they have First Amendment rights, but those only apply to government employees,” confirms Paula Brantner, senior adviser at Workplace Fairness.
Whitney Traylor is a law professor at MSU Denver. She also concurs that firing players for their on-field protests is perfectly legal. “When it comes to the NFL and professional football players, it becomes a matter of what is in the contract, because they are not at-will employees. Many of those contracts have morality clauses or other similar clauses that say something to the effect that if you bring disputes onto the league, onto the team, that they can terminate you.” Corporations have policies, she insists. “The same reason that you can be fired because you come late for work. That’s not a crime, but it’s against the employer’s policy and the employer can then choose to terminate you for doing so.
According to rating services, NBC Sports Sunday Night Football coverage was down about 10 percent from last year. The game matching the Oakland Raiders with the Washington Redskins game was also down from the first two games of the season.” Trump’s been “seeing lots of empty stadiums.” he taunted. “I have seen a couple stadiums over the last few weeks they’re losing. There are a lot of empty seats. I couldn’t even believe it.”
Outside the stadiums, fans are echoing the President’s concerns. Rodney Gibbons is retired from the prison system. He points out the player who started it all has not been able to find work since. “Kaepernick is rightfully getting what he had coming to him, for protesting the way he did during the national anthem. It got him the best press that he could get, O.K.? That was his intention, I suppose. Now he has to pay the price for it. The American people don’t want that. They don’t want to see their national anthem disgraced and that’s what he did.”
Stan Taylor points out Kaepernick is trying to project his personal values onto the entire team. “I saw it as very selfish behavior. If he wants to make a statement, that’s fine, let him make the statement but he’s trying to make the 49ers make the statement. That’s not his place to do. It’s selfish.”
Not only is protesting inappropriate, it is bad for the team. “It’s jeopardizing his teammates. It’s jeopardizing business. If you’re the CEO of whatever team, you’re saying, can I afford to put stock in this guy when I don’t know what he’s going to do that may drive my stock down? It’s not about his freedom of speech. It’s about, he’s a danger to the corporation.”
Matthew Cruz had good reason to decorate the bed of his truck with an American flag. He has great respect for the flag, in part because he’s currently a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Seeing Kaepernick kneel during the National Anthem gave Cruz only one option. He turned off the TV. “I may not be the biggest impact, I’m just turning off my TV, they get millions of views but I would never sit, I don’t care who you are. I’m actually stationed here. It hit us pretty hard. I do the military funeral honors for the state. We play Taps at all the veteran funerals. I love football but dude, you’re playing a game. Football is not a worldwide sport, it’s an American sport.”
Over on the West coast, four white Los Angeles women in their 20s head to the Rams-Chargers game. They have also heard a lot about Kaepernick and his protest of kneeling during the national anthem. 27-year-old Michelle McDonald works in finance. “Kaepernick doesn’t have a job now because he doesn’t like his country and he has a poor attitude.”
Like many Americans, the girls confess they don’t know what exactly Kaepernick is protesting. After being reminded that he originally protested police brutality against people of color, Lindsey Bunker related “I forgot that was why he was protesting. It got publicized so much that he didn’t respect his country that it took away from the actual purpose of his protest. I didn’t even know why he was doing that. I just thought he didn’t like America anymore. You should be able to stand up for what you believe in because that’s what our country is all about but you need to do it in a way that conveys your actual point.”
Also walking into the Coliseum was a retired engineer, Jeff Thierry, taking his granddaughter to the game. The 60-year-old black man is well aware of why Kaepernick is kneeling but isn’t so sure everyone else is. “The citizens of this country have a very passionate opinion about the United States flag. There’s a misunderstanding between that and what Colin Kaepernick is doing. It’s not clear. His stance is not about the flag. It’s about unarmed African-American people and people of color being subjected to violence by police and the police not being held accountable for that.”
Broncos head coach Vance Joseph sums up the general consensus. “Politics and football do not mix.” He said. Their “job is to win football games.”