Pigskin players have right to protest, but that doesn’t mean they should

I don’t think that athletes and entertainers need to stay silent about issues they care about, nor do I begrudge them using their fame and wealth to advance causes they believe in.

That tolerance for their opinions, however, does not mean that I need to celebrate what they say, or the means with which they say it.

Such is the case in the National Football League, and the national anthem protest. A protest, by the way, which has now spread far beyond the NFL to a high school soccer squad in Maine, and 8-year-old Pee Wee Football teams.

Dallas Cowboys players kneel together with their arms locked prior to Monday night’s game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The question of what rights the players have is unquestioned. The First Amendment, as I told you last week, gives any citizen in this country the right to engage in unpopular, controversial or even offensive speech. That is something we need to fiercely guard.

Which is why I believe that President Donald Trump treaded on some very dangerous territory when he called for NFL owners to fire players who refused to stand for the national anthem.

Owners certainly have a right to fire their players, if they so choose. That is unquestioned. The First Amendment outlines restrictions of government suppression of public speech, not private.

My problem with the president’s comment isn’t the sentiment behind what he was saying. It was his call for private citizens to have their employment terminated because of their political opinions.

If he had said “I think the players should stand for the national anthem, and it is disrespectful of them not to,” then I wouldn’t have had any problem at all.

But he is the president, which is an office that is basically the United States government personified. For him to call for players to be fired in response to controversial speech is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because it makes use of a government office and the bully pulpit to attempt to punish speech.

This is something we should not tolerate, and I would be troubled by it with any president, of any party, on any subject, no matter how much I agreed with his sentiment.

And I do agree with him. Not necessarily that the players should be fired, but that the national anthem protests are needlessly disrespectful and inappropriate.

I come from a family that has a long history of service, with two uncles that fought in World War II, as well as another that fought in Korea. My own father was an Army veteran, and one of the only regrets I have in my own life is that I didn’t join the military, given how seriously I had considered doing so.

The flag doesn’t just represent the United States as a nation, but it also represents the ideals that this country holds dear. The ideals that we don’t always live up to, but that we all collectively agree are ones we cherish, codified in our Constitution. Things like freedom of speech, religion, association and the press, as well as self-determination, democratic government, and equal protection under the law.

So you think it is all a lie, and that isn’t really what it stands for? Good for you. But to most of us, that’s exactly what it means, and when we see you refusing to even quietly respect the moment and our reverence for all that it represents, you can’t be surprised by the negative reaction.

Incidentally, it doesn’t matter to me why the flag is flying and the anthem is played. It doesn’t matter to me if it was a long-standing tradition for a hundred years, as it is in baseball, or if the league was paid by the Pentagon to do it. When the anthem is played, whatever the reason, my attitude is the same.

Choosing to make yourself a spectacle by selecting a protest symbol that represents the freedoms that allow you to engage in that very protest without fear of government oppression is foolishly misplaced. And to be perfectly frank, that lack of dignity and respect isn’t making it any more likely that the protest is going to be taken seriously anyway. In fact, it is likely doing the opposite.

If you think America isn’t living up to her own ideals, fine, say so. Protest. Speak out. Use your perch. You’re famous, and rich, and trust me, you’ll make plenty of noise no matter how you choose to register that protest. But just because you can disrespect a revered symbol to get attention for yourself, doesn’t mean that you should.

If you do it anyway, I’ll defend your right to do it to my last breath, but don’t expect me to use my First Amendment rights to congratulate you for it.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.