Players kneeling during the national anthem at a NFL game may not be protected speech under the U.S. Constitution, but they’re also a time-honored American way of getting a message across, panelists said in a recent free-speech forum at the University of Georgia.
“Often the most effective way to get the message across is to be offensive,” said Sean Young, legal director of the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union, likening football players’ protests to such civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s as sit-ins.
President Trump has tweeted that NFL owners ought to fire players who kneel in protest against social injustices during the national anthem before games, and some owners have threatened to bench players who kneel.
A woman cyclist who made a rude gesture with her finger at Trump’s motorcade as it passed her on a street in north Virginia actually was fired because of it. She posted photos on Twitter and Facebook and her bosses at Akima, a marketing and communications firm, explained she had violated the company’s social media policy.
But those aren’t First Amendment violations, because the NFL and Akima are private organizations, said UGA law professor Sonja West.
The NFL has taken a hit from the kneeling controversy; ratings are down again, said Thomas Baker, a UGA professor of sport management and policy.
Protests had dwindled down to six players before Trump “poured gasoline on the fire,” he said.
Many have been offended by the kneeling, which some perceive as disrespectful to the country.
But from another point of view, “Athletes may love their country, but there’s a concern whether their country loves them,” Baker said.
“I believe we’re going through a civil rights era,” said Baker, noting that athletes also had roles in earlier civil rights movements, such as when athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black power salute during a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony.
“To me it’s like deja vu all over again,” said DavidShipley, a former dean of the UGA Law School. Shipley is also UGA’s faculty athletics representative to the NCAA, but was not formally representing the UGA Athletic Association on the panel.
UGA athletic administrators have told players they won’t interfere with their rights to express their opinions, said Shipley, quoting from a recent article in the Athens Banner-Herald.
At UGA, football players aren’t on the field during the national anthem. Shipley said he didn’t know what players on the basketball teams would do as their season gets underway.
“I think (basketball coach) Mark Fox gets it. I think (football coach) Kirby Smart gets it. Our president (Jere Morehead) is a really politically savvy guy,” Shipley said.
“I think they understand the First Amendment,” he added. “But at the same time, they understand the political pressures 60 miles away under the gold dome, and that complicates things for us.”
Shipley noted the repercussions after five African American cheerleaders at Kennesaw State University took a knee during the national anthem before a football game. After pressure from some local elected officials who thought the gesture disrespectful, school administrators took all the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem, then recently rescinded that order.
Baker wondered if the issues of social injustice underlying the protests are getting lost in the noise over kneeling.
“We need someone to come out and convey the message” about things like millions of people imprisoned for non-violent offenses, he said.
But Young thought the protests are bringing attention to the issues.
“It’s making a difference, I think,” he said.