Athletes and their first amendment right

Mexico Olympics ’68
Tomme Smith and John Carlos

There has been a renewal and shift in the professional athletic landscape where boycotting and protesting political issues has become prevalent again. I do not think its a coincidence that this rebirth has coincided with advent of social media tools, where athletes can post their stances and beliefs to their followers directly, and where local news can easily become national news. Where a video can become viral in hours.

This connectivity to any person with a smart phone is powerful. The ability to influence, mobilize, and spark a movement is seeing the most efficient and effective tool to date. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, all of the internet has provided a medium unlike anything we have ever seen.

In turn, professional athletes have become increasingly part of conversations about race. They have felt the weight of their standing and have voiced what they believe to be unjust. Leagues and institutions have struggled with how to deal with players speaking out. In an effort to stay impartial leagues have shielded themselves with rules and codes; all in an effort to remain bipartisan. Take for instance the WNBA, which issued fines earlier this year for teams wearing all black t-shirts in solidarity for ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The league cited that it was violating league uniform rules. The public out cry forced the league to rescind the penalties after backlash.

Just a few years prior to this, the NBA had a similar scenario. However, they didn’t fine NBA stars for wearing a t-shirt honoring the death of Eric Gardner with the words,”I can’t breathe”. The league commissioner, Adam Silver stated, “I respect… all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.” President Obama praised and offered his view point:

         We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and bill Russell played in raising consciousness. We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsement and don’t make waves. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society too,’ and focus attention. I’d like to see more athletes do that – not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.

Star NBA players again voiced their concern and opinion this year at the 2016 ESPYs. The lines can become blurred on what is appropriate and what is not, if a player is representing himself, or his team or league. This sets a precedence that may force the hand of leagues to take sides.

There is real world power of influence in athletics. For example, the University of Missouri football team threatened to not play their entire in support of a graduate student who was on a hunger strike for the removal of the school president due to the alleged systemic racism on campus. The student had little traction, but when the team got involved, droves of reporting agencies descended upon the campus. The school president and chancellor later resigned.

What prompted me to write about this was the recent outcry against Colin Kaepernick who has boycotted the National Anthem for all of his pre-season NFL games. In his words:

     I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

This obviously hit a nerve. I saw friends, friends of friends, post terrible things about him and what he had done. I saw a few videos of angry fans burning his jersey. One of his own teammates hinted that they would have gone to blows on the sideline if he was there. This kind of reaction gave me pause. This kind of intolerance was perhaps indicative of his underlying point that he may have been trying to get at – We still have problems here and we need to discuss them.

I am not defending the mode by which he protested. I am not defending his words, which invoke the idea that this country is completely intolerant and unjust. I am however defending his right to express his beliefs. I believe that in that moment he was representing his views. Wether you like it or not, good men and women have died for his right to not salute the flag.

I am not okay with what he did. I think it was disrespectful. The flag symbolizes all of our hopes of what this country can be and what good it is. The National Anthem is a beautiful tribute to the real struggles that this country was wrought out of and what it continues to rise from. But to call him hateful names, to burn his jersey, to call for his job? It’s just as ignorant as him forgetting the many blessing this country has given to him. It is the fear and hate he is speaking directly about.

Again, while I disagree with how he protested and what he said, he has our attention… for now anyway. It may be negative on him, but it can start a conversation. It can bring awareness to what he is passionate about and his purpose on sitting – the oppression of minorities.

I have seen racism first hand. It’s vial. It’s ugly. However, I have also seen the countless blessings that come from living in this country. I think the good out number the bad. What a wonderful blessing it is to be part of this nation! A nation that will allow citizens, just like Kaepernick to call out leaders, officials, police officers, even each other, and not be killed for it.

(There is another piece written by Ian O’Connor on Kaepernick that provides further insight.)

— Update —

After writing this post, I read the full transcript of Kaepernick’s comments to the media addressing his stance. You can read it here. Here are a few Q&A’s I found most interesting.

-Q: What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the goal?
-KAEPERNICK: I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.
That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.
-Q: Is this something that has evolved in your mind? How has it progressed to where you make a stand like this?
-KAEPERNICK: It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally.
And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.
This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.
-Q: What would you like to see changed?
-KAEPERNICK: There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable.
The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.
-Q: So many people see the flag as a symbol of the military. How do you view that? What do you say to those people?
-KAEPERNICK: I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.
They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.
People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.
I’ve seen videos. I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought for and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.
-Q: What do you say to the people who like what you’re saying but you’re going about it the wrong way?
-KAEPERNICK: I don’t understand how it’s the wrong way. To me, this is a freedom that we’re allowed in this country.
Going back to the military thing, it’s a freedom that men and women that have fought for this country have given me this opportunity by the contributions they have made.
I don’t see it as going about it the wrong way. This is something that has to be said, it has to be brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention, and when that’s done, I think people can realize what the situation is and then really affect change.
-Q: Are you concerned that this is seen as a blanket indictment of law enforcement?
-KAEPERNICK: What’s that?
-Q: It can be seen as a blanket indictment of law enforcement.
-KAEPERNICK: As far as what? I don’t really understand what you’re trying to get at.
-Q: You say people are getting murdered by police. You seem to indict all of police.
-KAEPERNICK: There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it. And their government officials. They’re put in place by the government so that’s something that this country has to change.
There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable, make those standards higher.
You have people that practice law and our lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist.
That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.
-Q: Are you concerned that so much of the talk is only about you and not the issues?
-KAEPERNICK: I do think that the talk has been more about me, more… I know a lot of people’s initial reactions, thought it was bashing the military, which it wasn’t. That wasn’t my intention at all.
I think now that we have those things cleared up, we can get to the root of what I was saying and really address those issues.
-Q: Does the fact that this is an election year have anything to do with the timing?
-KAEPERNICK: Once again, it wasn’t a timing thing. It wasn’t something that was planned.
But I think the two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issue that we have in this country right now.
-Q: Do you want to expound on that?
-KAEPERNICK: I mean, you have Hillary who’s called black teens or black kids super-predators.
You have Donald Trump who’s openly racist.
I mean, we have a presidential candidate who’s deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me, because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison.
So what is this country really standing for?
-Q: But this is a country that has elected a black man to the presidency, twice. Can you understand when people ask why there’s this outrage when the country has elected a black president, and sacrificed a lot of things for freedom?
-KAEPERNICK: It has elected a black president. But there are also things–a lot of things–that haven’t changed. There are a lot of issues that still haven’t been addressed.
And that’s something over an eight-year term, there’s a lot of those things that are hard to change and there’s a lot of those things that he doesn’t necessarily have complete control over.
-Q: What would be a success for you on this just for the short term?
-KAEPERNICK: You know, that’s a tough question, because there’s a lot of things that need to change, a lot of different issues that need to be addressed.
That’s something that… it’s really hard to lock down one specific thing that needs to change currently.

2 thoughts on “Athletes and their first amendment right”

  1. I have a lot of thoughts about this. I completely agree that he is in his right to protest the way he did. i definitely do not agree with it, but I can respect it. There's several frustrating things about the transcript that I have thought about since I first read it. The worst thing is he offers no specific instances nor does he offer any solutions. My belief is if you are just going to point fingers rather than offer solution, you aren't helping the problem at all. In today's world, we are all aware of the “problems”. They most definitely exist. However, not knowing what “blanket indictment” means or acknowledging that 99.9% of police are exceptional, is a problem. If you are going to take a stance, have facts to back your statements. They even offered him chances to give ideas of what he wanted to see different and he just balked. If you are going to stand for something in the national spotlight, you should be prepared to discuss the entire problem, not just your feelings. That's what bloggers are for. I also find it fascinating the he blasts both presidential candidates but you never heard a word of that in the media. There's several other things I could keep going on about but I'm tired of typing so I'm going to leave it at that. I respect his right to do what he did, I disagree with how he did it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Carl.

    The only counter I can come up with is that perhaps his first objective was to get the attention (and he has gotten a TON of press) and then give the specific examples… but he has yet to do that. Instead, he has worn socks that depict police officers as pigs. He needs to give more. The floor has been given to him.

    I do find it interesting that a lot of people have totally lost sight of what this was really all about. So even if he gave facts I wonder if people would change their minds or actually talk about the issues at hand.

Leave a Reply