Crisis in the NFL

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Anders Umholtz, Arts & Life Editor

September has been a busy month for news, with Hurricane Maria bringing disaster to Puerto Rico, North Korea emerging as a potential nuclear power, and Catalonia vying for independence from Spain. However, one story has surfaced from the murky waters of current events, putting America’s values and freedoms to the test.

The protests by NFL players have sparked controversy in the United States, and brought to light long-neglected social issues. When he was quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers last fall, Colin Kaepernick made the unprecedented decision to remain on the bench during the national anthem before a football game instead of standing with the rest of his team. Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated or kneeling during the anthem led to controversy and many believe it is the reason he is no longer actively playing professional football. This September, many more players followed in his footsteps, scaling the controversy up to the whole NFL rather than just Kaepernick. As the news got around, many Americans showed their aversion to the demonstrations, including the President. Trump raised the issue at a rally on the night of September 22, when he personally challenged the protesters, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a **** off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’” Many people agree with Trump, holding the opinion that players who kneel or sit during the anthem are disrespecting the American flag, or even that they’re un-American. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick once explained in a post-game interview.

First thing to get out of the way is that these protests are legal. Refusing to stand for the national anthem is not against the law, so Kaepernick can’t be arrested for demonstrating. In 2016, he explained that the reason why many of his teammates hadn’t joined him in kneeling is because “they’re scared they might lose their job, or they might not get the endorsements, or they might not be treated the same way.” Despite this, the NFL as a whole hasn’t really pressured players to stand during the anthem, and Trump’s speech inspired every team in the league to take some sort of action only two days later September 24. The responses ranged from entire teams kneeling or raising fists in the air, to not even walking onto the field until the anthem had ended. As it turns out, football players don’t like being called “sons of ****.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the players, saying that their actions “reflected the frustration, the disappointment, of the players over the divisive rhetoric we heard from Trump.”

As it stands now, there is a huge rift in America over the implications of these fairly small-scale protest, but not a completely new one. We’ve witnessed major disagreement on whether or not burning the American flag should be illegal, with the Supreme Court determining that doing this is protected under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution during the case of Texas v. Johnson in 1989 (of course, you have to follow the same rules you would normally in regards to starting an open fire in public). Even before that, the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943 led to a historic statement, that “freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.” It’s important to remind ourselves that acts like those we are seeing now in the NFL may be seen as disrespectful or offensive, but are really something that show us one of the greatest things about this country: that we’re even able to demonstrate like this. You can look around the world today and see places where freedoms like ours simply aren’t a thing, where you could be jailed or executed for disrespecting your flag. Colin Kaepernick’s cause is a matter of its own, and a whole story could be written about that on its own, but the most important thing to see in his actions is that he’s maintaining the freedom for all of us, and is not allowing himself to be pressured into silence.