The NFL’s decision to mandate the behavior of its players during the national anthem is not about the first amendment. It’s about the right of employers to determine appropriate behavior of their employees. They are within their rights with this action. I do not like it one bit, but that’s the law. It was an economic decision based on decreasing revenues at games as the controversy heated up. The god worshipped by the NFL is money.
The First Amendment does not apply to the NFL because it is not a governmentally funded agency. The First Amendment (which you can read here talks about what the government can and can’t do. It’s an important distinction.
However, there is a precedent that makes more sense in this conversation about what is and what is not appropriate in this debate about NFL players kneeling during the anthem.
In 1943 a new Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson, wrote the decision on a case involving West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. It is a complicated case which you can read about here in an article by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker.
In a stunning opinion Justice Jackson wrote: “Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by good, as well as by evil men. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters.”
The Occupant came close as he suggested the players be expelled from the United States.
Justice Jackson continued: “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment of our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”
Summarizing another part of his opinion, Jackson condemns forced patriotic ceremonies as disingenuous to independent thought processes. He wrote, “The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
The upshot of his opinion is that “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no office, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism religion or other matters of opinion….”
Typically, in times of increased nationalism uniformity of the message increases in importance. It was evident in Jesus’ time as his message of love and justice and hope was hijacked into a narrative about dissidence and threat to the Roman occupation. Systems and governments regularly distort messages of dissent that threaten the status quo.
Football is big business. It has some odd connection to patriotism and all things God and country. Mostly it has to do with the bottom line of making money. Fans on both sides of the issue boycotted games and revenues dropped. That’s the issue; they don’t care about the reasons the players are kneeling.
True patriots are those who have the courage of their convictions. They kneel because the flag symbolizes so much of what is not true for large groups of the population–liberty and justice for all.