Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem became the leading news story of the game during the 2016 NFL season. Instead of standing for the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” CK knelt to make a statement that the nation is racist. This perception got legs when several police shootings across the country seemed to target black males who were unarmed, or who were in the process of surrendering. In response, large numbers of African-Americans joined a group known as Black Lives Matter (BLM) which staged protests in the communities where these shootings took place. The formation of this group followed a long-held tradition in the USA in which political views are advanced by activist groups that unite around a common goal or belief.
The difference between BLM and CK’s actions were the forums where they took place. BLM protested in the streets and in acceptable public forums where political protests are customary, whereas CK protested in a restricted, private setting. This, and several other aspects of his demonstration were inappropriate, and, if permitted, the result could not only damage professional football, it could foment widespread chaos in the nation at large.
An NFL game is not a political forum. Had CK exited the stadium and conducted his demonstration in the parking lot or on the sidewalk, he would have been exercising his constitutional rights. Instead, he chose a setting where thousands of fans paid hundreds of dollars to get in, plus millions more watched over television premium subscription channels. Advertisers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy thirty or sixty seconds of time for which CK got for free. He took advantage of someone else’s expense and effort to assemble the audience. They paid to watch him play football, not conduct a political protest. An NFL facility is a commercial venue that promises fans and viewers a sports event. CK sabotaged that event unfairly and illegally.
In uniform, CK represents his team, not himself. In the business world, companies tightly control employees’ behavior and appearance while on the job. Some workers are forbidden to wear outlandish clothing, wear hairstyles that does not have management approval, and some are not allowed to display tattoos or other markings while representing the company during business hours. The policy of most sports teams and professional athlete associations covers the behavior of a member wherever he or she may be. We have witnessed many pro players getting into trouble for domestic disputes, banned substance use or abuse, irresponsible behavior and criminal acts. Such behavior is even more inappropriate when a player is in uniform. In uniform, CK has a contractual obligation to abide by management rules. If he insists on displaying his personal political views, he should take off the uniform and resign from the team.
The value of an NFL team and its individual players is a function of fan support. The relationship of a sports team to its fan base is fundamental to professional sports. No team that wants to stay in business should jeopardize its relationship with its fans. Not only are ticket sales and television viewership at stake, so also are signature items like team clothing, paraphernalia with the team logo, and the appeal of individual players in commercials. Accounting firms assess the value of any business or entity in terms of “good will,” along with any hard assets or cash reserves. It is very possible that an ill-advised protest like the one CK took could undermine the good will value of the San Francisco 49’ers.
In fact, according to New York Magazine, viewership of NFL games is at an all-time low for the 2016 season, and a major factor is CK’s protest. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/10/poll-anger-at-colin-kaepernick-is-driving-down-nfl-ratings.html. His action has also trickled down to college, high school and neighborhood association players. One team reportedly was forced to end their season prematurely because of the backlash of parents against the team’s copycat behavior of CK’s action.
Anything that affects the morale of a team may be regulated by owners and management. Team sports, like football, depend on the interaction of players with each other. Athletic ability represents only one part of the interaction. Trust, respect, personality, motive and other behavioral components also affect team play. A player may have great athletic skills, but if his attitude stinks, or if he has other traits that irritate or anger others on the team, then the performance of the entire team suffers. The NFL recognizes this in their policy statements. The policy states,
“It is a privilege to be part of the National Football League. Everyone who is part of the league must refrain from conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL. This includes owners, coaches, players, other team employees, game officials, and employees of the league office, NFL Films, NFL Network or any other NFL business. Conduct by anyone in the league that is illegal, violent, dangerous, or irresponsible puts innocent victims at risk, damages the reputation of others in the game, and undercuts public respect and support for the NFL. We must endeavor at all times to be people of high character; we must show respect for others inside and outside our workplace; and we must strive to conduct ourselves in ways that favorably reflect on ourselves, our teams, the communities we represent, and the NFL.”
“To this end, the league has increased education regarding respect and appropriate behavior, has provided resources for all employees to assist them in conforming their behavior to the standards expected of them, and has made clear that the league’s goal is to prevent violations of the Personal Conduct Policy. In order to uphold our high standards, when violations of this Personal Conduct Policy do occur, appropriate disciplinary action must follow.” www.nfl.com
If one political expression is allowed, management must allow all other political expressions. It is a slippery slope that, once entered, has no stopping point for an individual until it hits bottom. There are other aspects of this action that could be cited, like the disrespect to the country, the contempt for the sacrifices by our troops to preserve our freedom, the scorn for a patriotic spirit and the disavowal of the position of a role model for the younger generation. These are more subjective criticisms, even though they may be more important than the ones outlined above.
Colin Kaepernick, the private citizen, can protest all he wants. He has that right. (It also may be noted that his protest would have gone down easier had he been active in protest movements and attempts to rectify racial wrongs in his past.) Colin Kaepernick, the uniformed football player and employee of the San Francisco 49er’s, subordinates his right to protest as long as he is under contract. If the team management choose to fire him, they would be operating within their legal rights.
When we, as a society, politicize everything, we also polarize everything. We destroy the cooperation and unity that makes us strong. A weak America is not good for the world.