The NFL Protests and Freedom of Speech

The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920 and took on its current form two years later. The first Super Bowl was held in 1960, at which point the NFL began to mirror the commercialized industry it is today. The Super Bowl annually generates over $620 million in revenue and is the most lucrative sports event in the entire world, CBS charges $5 million per 30 second advertisement. Furthermore, the 32 NFL franchises are worth an astonishing combined $74.8 billion. This wealth is built in a large part by the work of African American players who comprise over 70% of professional football players in the NFL.

Despite the staggering amounts of money generated by black league players, the NFL and its African American members have had a tumultuous history. From 1927 until reintegration following WWII in 1946, NFL teams were barred from drafting black players. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s only furthered the tension between black players and the NFL. The problems in the NFL mirrored racial tensions across the country. African Americans who were disenfranchised through Jim Crow Voting Laws and a segregated society began to gain social inclusion and equality with Brown v Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and the Voting Rights Act (1965). However, in the NFL, as in American society as a whole, the strides made during the Civil Rights Movement did not fully remedy the inequality faced by African Americans.

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A topic of current debate – the Black Lives Matter movement – aims to shed light on police brutality towards African Americans in the United States. A series of high profile cases involving police officers killing black citizens inspired Colin Kaepernick and the subsequent NFL protests. While there is debate over the justification and use of force in these instances, many Americans believe there is underlying racial causes and action needs to be taken. In 2016 Colin Kaepernick the then quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the National Anthem to protest this police brutality. It sparked a movement that has now gained national and international momentum and attention.

The Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in the tragic deaths of three Americans, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin was an unarmed, 17-year-old African American, who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in his Sanford, Florida neighborhood. The subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman provided one of the first sparks for the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement gained further momentum after the Ferguson Riots, which were ignited following the death of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by a white police officer. Brown allegedly had his hands up when he was shot, this precipitated the now famous slogan “hands up don’t shoot”. The arguments of the Black Lives Matter movement were further highlighted by the death of Eric Garner. Garner was arrested by a New York City Police (NYPD) Officer and during the course of his arrest he was put in a chokehold. This chokehold killed him and was subsequently ruled a homicide, as it is specifically prohibited by the NYPD as excessive force.

Kaepernick’s actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement were met with enthusiasm and pride by some. However, he was seen by others as unpatriotic and disrespectful towards the American flag and American soldiers. The debate on Kaepernick’s actions took a partisan line and became part of a wider political debate. Free speech and patriotism were brought out by both sides to defend their positions. The first Amendment of the Bill of Rights states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” To Kaepernick and his supporters, taking a knee during the national anthem was a peaceful protest that used his platform as an NFL quarterback to advocate against police brutality.

However, the NFL Protests are no longer comprised of only one player. In fact, Kaepernick no longer even plays in the NFL, an action that is seen by his supporters as a unified show of force by NFL owners against him. He is currently suing the league. With the advent of the Trump administration, the protests have grown exponentially. This current NFL season, many players – of all races and backgrounds and from different teams in all parts of the country – have taken a knee in protest of police brutality.

President Trump inadvertently escalated the situation while at a rally in Alabama for senatorial candidate Luther Strange. Trump made a wide range of inflammatory statements including, “get that son of a bitch of the field right now, he’s fired, he’s fired” and suggesting that NFL fans should boycott games until the NFL owners felt enough economic consequences to penalize their players for kneeling.

During week three of the NFL season, over 200 players took a knee during the Sunday games, even more linked arms in solidarity, raised their arms in a signal reminiscent of the black power salute, and whole teams remained in their locker rooms during the national anthem. The Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room during the anthem as a symbol of their solidarity with the movement as did their opposing team the Tennessee Titans; the Pittsburgh Steelers also skipped the National Anthem all together, choosing instead to remain in their locker rooms. It is not just players who have taken a knee: owners, general managers, and coaches have joined in as well. Christopher Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, locked arms with his players during the anthem in a public sign of solidarity.

The protests even spread abroad. In an exhibition game in London, the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars both made bold statements. Some players took a knee during the American national anthem and then stood for the British national anthem. The coach of the Ravens, John Harbaugh and the coach and owner of the Jaguars, Doug Marrone and Shahid Khan, linked arms with their players on the field.

Even teams who are closely associated with the Trump administration took strong stands in favor of the NFL protests. For example the New England Patriots, whose owner Robert Kraft and star player Tom Brady were Trump supporters during the election, came out against President Trump’s comments. Brady linked arms and touched shoulders with kneeling players.

The protests have now spread beyond the NFL with high school and collegiate athletes, as well as members of the Women’s National Basketball Association WNBA, joining in.

If you want to support the NFL Protests you can donate to the Black Lives Matter movement here. You can also write letters to your local congressmen and senators or to the White House asking for more comprehensive legislation or executive action on police brutality. Furthermore, you could purchase Kaepernick, Newton, of Reid jerseys, all players who have taken a vocal stance against police brutality towards African Americans and the comments of the Trump administration.

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