There has been a lot of talk lately about protests. The recent story was the President uninviting the Philadelphia Eagles from their White House visit because he feels NFL players are being unpatriotic by disrespecting the flag. This story comes on the heels of the new NFL rule that will no longer allow players to kneel during the anthem, but they are allowed to remain in the locker room. Firestorms have erupted on both sides arguing about freedom of speech and protests. On the one side are those upset at the President for making this a political issue and at the NFL for not allowing its players to express their views. On the other side are those upset with wealthy players, feeling that the players are disrespecting soldiers who have risked their lives defending what the flag stands for. As always, I will leave these arguments for the readers to decide, but I want to take a quick look at the history of protests.
The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Clearly, the Constitution gives all people the right to protest, as long as they are peaceful. However, what the Constitution does not give people is the freedom from consequences. In other words, you may protest against the government without fear of arrest, but if you write on Facebook that your boss is a jerk, your First Amendment right will not guarantee your employment.
Our nation was founded by protest. The Sons of Liberty began complaining about “No Taxation without Representation” long before they spoke about revolution. Women began protesting for the vote as early as the 1840s. Workers protested for labor rights during the Gilded Age and beyond. The Bonus Army marched on Washington in 1932. Of course, the standard for protest today is the 1960s with the students protesting against the Vietnam War and minorities protesting for basic human rights.
When we picture protest, the images in our minds are students protesting the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968, Hispanic students walking out of schools in California, or civil rights workers walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. What makes these protestors different? They protested in spite of the consequences.
Ben Franklin told the members of the Continental Congress, “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” These men knew if they were captured their lives were over. When suffragists chained themselves to a government building, they knew they would be arrested. When Rosa Parks boarded that bus, she intended to sit in the front, knowing the police would drag her off. When students took over an administration building with a sit-in, they know they risked expulsion.
Today, however, protests are much different. I have been a university teacher for fifteen years and at four different institutions. During that time, I have seen my share of student protests. The difference between current students and past is that before the protest the students will ask for permission to walk out of class and join the march. When I tell them no, even if for a cause I believe in because then it would not be a real protest, they complain that I am not being fair. Most show up to class the next day. They want to protest; they just do not want to ever suffer consequences. NFL players have similar attitudes.
Do NFL players have the right to kneel during the national anthem? Yes. Should they? You can decide. Yet on the other side, do owners have the right to require their employees to stand during the pledge? Also yes. Last year the NFL lost fans and dropped revenue for possibly the first time in their history. Patriotic and right-leaning football fans upset with NFL protests began turning off their TVs on Sunday afternoons in their own form of protest. NFL owners are all similar in one way. They are rich. That does not mean they all agree on politics. But when the NFL commissioner makes a ruling requiring players to stand for the flag or be fined, it is more financial than political. I am not saying there are no politics involved, yet if forcing players to stand on their heads during the National Anthem brought in more fans and revenue, you would see some awkward flag ceremonies next year.
I watch a lot of sports programming, probably too much, and all I hear from commentators is why the NFL commissioner is wrong for not allowing the players the right to protest. The morning talk shows are criticizing the President for calling out players and pushing the NFL to take a stance. Since when did protesters need permission? Why is the NFL wrong for taking care of their business or the President wrong for an opinion? In this case, the consequences are not even that bad. If the players kneel, they will keep their jobs, they will not be arrested or led off the field. They will be fined. Granted, even for men who make more during one contract cycle than many of us will make in our lifetime, fines are hard. But is not standing up for what we believe in supposed to be hard?
I am not saying NFL players should not protest, or that my students should not protest. In fact, sometimes I wish I were brave enough to protest for things I see as wrong. I am just saying from a historical perspective that if we want to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, those whom we hold up high and respect for what they did, we need to be willing to accept the consequences of protest and not complain that it is not fair.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.