Editor's Note: The following column first appeared in The Washington Post.
Playing in London, Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars players wouldn’t stand for the U.S. national anthem but did for “God Save the Queen” in the very country we fought to win our independence.
Worse, the players held their disgraceful protest on National Gold Star Mother’s Day, the day our country honors mothers who have lost children in war. A Gold Star mother whose son died in Afghanistan told CNN last year that when she first saw players taking a knee, “my heart kind of stopped and I lost my breath because the flag that I see is the flag that draped my son’s casket.” Imagine what she and other Gold Star mothers felt seeing 100 players do the same on the very day our country set aside to thank them.
Way to go, NFL.
In Pittsburgh, only one player — Alejandro Villanueva — a former Army Ranger who lost brothers in arms fighting under that flag — came out of the locker room to stand for the anthem. He was criticized for doing so by his coach. The fans’ response? Sales of Villanueva jerseys skyrocketed.
What these players don’t seem to understand is that Americans gave their lives so that they could have the freedom to play a kids’ game for a living. When players disrespect the flag, they disrespect that sacrifice. And it would not matter if they had done so to protest Donald Trump or Barack Obama — their actions would be equally offensive. If NFL players want to protest the president, they have plenty of other ways. Attend a rally. Speak out on Twitter. Tell the media after the game, “I stood up for America but I stand against Donald Trump.” But don’t show contempt for the flag.
Were President Trump’s comments urging owners to fire players who refused to stand incendiary? Sure. Were they politically calculated? No doubt. But that does not change the fact that he is right. And he did not start this fight. Colin Kaepernick and a handful of players did. Moreover, Trump is not the first president to speak out against disrespect for the flag. In 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush excoriated his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, for vetoing a bill requiring Massachusetts teachers to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance. As president he proposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw desecration of the flag.
Yes, athletes do have a constitutional right to engage in speech that is offensive to millions of Americans. But the First Amendment does not protect them from the consequences of their offensive speech. There is no constitutional right to play professional football. If an NFL player stood on the sidelines and hurled racial epithets, his speech would be protected by the First Amendment. He would also be fired.
The NFL’s game operations manual says that “all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem” and must “stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking” or face discipline “such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s).” The league regularly penalizes players for dancing in the end zone, but it allows players to violate the rules regarding the national anthem with impunity.
The NFL is also selective when it comes to the kind of speech it protects. Last September, the Dallas Cowboys asked for permission to wear helmet stickers in honor of police officers massacred in Dallas earlier last year. The league refused. So the NFL will not allow players to express their support for police with a tiny helmet decal, but it lets them disrespect the flag while distorting the work of police officers across the country?
The players’ behavior is hurting the league. NFL viewership is at its lowest point since 1998, and ESPN reports that “national anthem protests were the top reason that NFL fans watched fewer games last season, according to a new survey released by J.D. Power.” Indeed, “Sunday Night Football” had its worst ratings of the season this weekend, as millions of Americans turned off their sets in disgust.
If the NFL won’t stop its players from disrespecting the flag, then maybe Congress should take a second look at some of the federal benefits the NFL enjoys. For example, the NFL gets a special antitrust exemption in U.S. law. Democrats in Congress have already been debating whether the league should be stripped of this exemption because of its weak response to domestic violence allegations against players. Perhaps Republicans angry over anthem protests will now be willing to join them? And this might also be a good time for some public hearings into the NFL’s efforts to interfere with concussion research at the National Institutes of Health.
Last year, National Hockey League coach John Tortorella declared, “If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.”
Hey, NFL, take a cue from the NHL. Every coach and owner should tell his players the same.