Music, Football, and the First Amendment
By: Pat Peters
Yes, I’m a football fan. I’ve been following the NFL for longer than most of today’s fans have been alive. The first telecast of an NFL game that I remember watching was the infamous Ice Bowl of 1967. I’ll never forget my entire family being heartbroken when Bart Starr called a quarterback sneak with 13 seconds left to play, and the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys. According to the Cowboys’ legendary coach Tom Landry, “It was a dumb call, but now it’s a great play.”
I married a Packers fan from Wisconsin. And it took several years of Cowboys players making the police blotter and Jerry Jones’ spouting off at press conferences to convince me that maybe I could be a Packers fan after all. Now I follow both teams, but if they’re playing each other, I come down on the Packers side. In fact, in January 2015 when the Cowboys played at Lambeau, I watched from the hotel bar in Bethlehem (Palestine, not Pennsylvania), the lone Packer fan amongst my North Texas traveling companions.
Of course, over the years, there have been rumors and outright scandals in the NFL. But now, suddenly the focus is not on targeting of players and teams awarding bonuses for causing injury, or on concussions and the resultant suicide rate among former NFL players, or even on Tom Brady’s Deflate-gate, but on whether or not players should stand respectfully during the singing of the national anthem prior to each game.
Everything came to a head after President Trump’s remarks on Sept. 22 before a crowd in Alabama, calling for any players protesting during the national anthem to be fired. Those remarks seemed to be tailor-made for the crowd, but of course they were heard across the country. The NFL and the NFL Players Association responded quickly to the president’s remarks. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “Divisive comments like [Trump’s] demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.” And DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, released a statement saying, in part, “NFL players are a part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose—and still choose today—to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports.”
According to Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of the “Edge of Sports” podcast, between 150 and 200 NFL players (and coaches and staff) made some form of protest during the singing of the national anthem prior to the Sept. 24, 2017 games across the league. And that number climbed after Monday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Phoenix Cardinals. Almost every network showing NFL games that weekend chose to televise the national anthem — and what the athletes were or weren’t doing — before each game, a practice counter to their typical commentators’ chatter or one last commercial break before kickoff. As a musician, I’m grateful that, for whatever reason, those who perform the national anthem at NFL games are getting air time. But that’s a heck of a reason to get noticed.
Social media has been filled with arguments both for and against protests during the national anthem. Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces have weighed in on both sides, some saying that the fact that service members have given their lives for freedom demands the respectful behavior of standing for the national anthem, while others have insisted that the whole purpose of fighting for freedom means that everyone has the First Amendment right to stand or not for the national anthem.
What is missing from much of the controversy is the real reason that NFL players are choosing to protest during the national anthem. Just as Rosa Parks’ protests were not about buses, these protests are not about the U.S. flag or the national anthem. They are, instead, about systemic racism, police misconduct, and the need for change in a country where it seems the only people free to exercise their First Amendment rights are white, male and straight. Regardless of the president’s response that his comments had nothing to do with race, the whole issue is about racism and injustice.
Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, started his protests during the 2016 preseason, after the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers. At first, he remained seated on the bench during the anthem, but after hearing from a former Green Beret that a more respectful protest would be to take a knee, Kaepernick changed his posture. Some of his teammates joined him after he spoke out about his purpose, and some other players across the NFL began doing the same.
A great story going around social media right now is of an 8-year-old athlete who knows that she is supposed to take a knee when someone on the field is hurt to show “that you care, and that you want them to get better, or be okay.” She makes the connection that NFL players taking a knee means “they think that our country is hurt, and they are hoping that it will get better.” Yeah, she’s 8 and she gets it.
The decisions of so many NFL teams and players to take a knee at their games following the president’s remarks is heartening. I hope that the real purpose of these protests won’t get lost in the rhetoric of the continuing social media wars. Any nation that values freedom must allow people to protest injustice where they see it. And its citizens must be willing to stand up—or take a knee—for those with no voice. NFL players have a forum like very few others, and it makes me proud that many of them have chosen to use that forum for good.
Pat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.
I would expect a more tempered response from a library director. Since you are in Texas it is entirely possible that members of your staff believe that abortion is actually the killing of unborn children. Since you believe it’s a right to protest where you see it, and they must speak for those who have no voice, then you should have no problem with those staff holding anti-abortion protests while on the job in your libraries.
Now I do believe if the NFL owners say it’s ok for their employees to protest, then it’s ok for them to protest. It’s a basic legal ruling that the first amendment does not apply while you’re on the clock if your employer prohibits protest.
At the end of the day I wouldn’t doubt you support protesting on the job, but only for causes you believe in.
Thanks for your comment, John. In light of the responses of the NFL Commissioner and the NFL Players Union, this situations seems different from a straightforward “can I protest at work?” And the fact that these players have millions of people watching them gives a platform for all kinds of things. You may be right that they should make their statements off the field, but their union and commissioner don’t seem to agree with you.
We’ll see how it all plays out. Thanks for reading.