Former Carl’s Jr. CEO: NFL could have prevented protest mess, as any competent employer would

Like many Americans, I find it distressing to see multi-millionaire athletes kneeling during the playing of our national anthem before professional football games.  In my lifetime, football has been a big part of our image as Americans. 

In my working-class Cleveland, Ohio family, Sunday football was always a big event.  One of my cousins was married to Lenny Dawson who would become a Hall of Fame quarterback.  It was a rare Sunday during football season when we weren’t gathered around our TV or radio for the Cleveland Browns or the Kansas City Chiefs game (both if possible). 

As we watched those games, I had no idea the political affiliation of any of the players and I certainly don’t recall any political discussions during the games (a rarity).  We ate, the adults drank, some smoked, and we all felt a part of something both exciting and uniquely American. 

I came to love the game.  Seeing Jim Brown run down the field is as much a part of my youth as JFK’s inaugural address.  I’m not equating their historical relevance.    But, both inspired and encouraged my generation regardless of your race, religion or political affiliation.  They were simply uplifting.  

Employees have no constitutional right to alienate a business’ customer base, damaging the business that employs both them and their co-workers, not to mention the owners who have taken the financial risks to create that business.

In more recent times, I would take my youngest son to Super Bowl games.  He was a fan and it was something we could share apart from his siblings.  He went on to play on his high school team that had a very successful record in his senior year.  I happily worked the chain gang for those games, measuring to see if we had a first down.  Football taught my son important lessons about hard work, individual achievement and being part of a team.  It was a unique experience.  It too was simply uplifting.  

I’m not watching professional football anymore.   It’s not that I’ve stopped being a fan.  I just find it hard to cheer on individuals who have so clearly benefitted from the opportunities our nation offers but refuse to acknowledge the sacrifice of so many Americans who risked or even lost their lives to protect the freedoms we (and they) all enjoy. 

Given the uncharacteristically low ratings and empty stadium seats in recent weeks, it appears that I’m not alone.  You may or may not like Donald Trump and you may or may not believe he should have gotten involved in this issue.  But, as he often does, the president articulated what a lot of Americans were feeling.  We simply do not support what these players are doing and, just as they have the right to kneel, we have the right to turn off the games or, like Vice President Pence, we have the right to leave. 

The NFL could have prevented this.  Honestly, any competent employer would have.  Employees do not have the right to alienate a business’ customer base, damaging the business that employs them.  As an owner, you can respect your employees’ First Amendment rights without destroying your business.  In fact, it could be argued that you are obligated to do so in defense of your other employees - who count on the jobs and incomes you provide - not to mention the investments your shareholders, franchisees or, in this case, team owners all make to build, operate and acquire these businesses.   

I ran the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurant chains for almost 17 years.  Along with our franchisees, we employed about 75,000 Americans and we flew the American flag in front of many of our restaurants.  Had any company employees decided to disrespect that flag in front of our customers, in our brand’s uniform and during their hours of employment, I would have encouraged our general managers to first warn them to stop and, if they refused, to fire them. 

I am very supportive of First Amendment rights and would encourage employees to express their opinions openly and freely, on their own time.  But employees have no constitutional right to alienate a business’ customer base, damaging the business that employs both them and their co-workers, not to mention the owners who have taken the financial risks to create that business.  When you accept employment, you accept the responsibility to advance the interests of the business that employs you.  You have no right, nor should any employer tolerate attempts, to damage that business by alienating its customer base.

These kneeling player-employees have put their NFL team owners in a difficult spot.  On the one hand, they certainly do not want players alienating their customers.  On the other hand, team unity is important to a winning season and they naturally want to be sensitive to their players’ concerns.  But, they never should have been put in this position. 

The NFL has rules as to the decorum players are to demonstrate during the playing of our national anthem.  They don’t have to sing along or hold their hands to their hearts (although some notably do).  But they do have to show the respect to which our flag and those who have sacrificed for it deserve.

The NFL’s failure to enforce this rule and late to the game efforts to resolve this problem, have hurt the sport.  The ramifications of that damage will impact the employees and team owners for some time to come.  It’s too bad.  A lot of us really enjoyed the game - and our dollars helped pay those multi-millionaires’ salaries. 

Andy Puzder was chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants for more than 16 years, following a career as an attorney. He was nominated by President Trump to serve as U.S. labor secretary. Puzder co-authored the book entitled Job Creation: How It Really Works and Why Government Doesn't Understand It. He is currently working on his second book, The Rebirth of Capitalism. Pre-order now on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndyPuzder.