For NFL Players, Civil -- and Visible -- Disobedience Is the Only Option

(Ryan Kang via AP)

Members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks on October 29, 2017, in Seattle.

Last week, NFL owners capitulated to President Donald Trump by voting to require players to stand on the field for the national anthem. Teams will be subject to a fine if any player disobeys, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The next day, Trump applauded the owners for doing “the right thing.” Players who refuse to stand for the anthem, Trump declared, “shouldn’t be in this country.”

Many NFL players have reacted with anger over the league’s new policy and Trump’s comments. “It’s disgusting because of our First Amendment rights,” said Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. “[Trump is] an idiot, plain and simple,” said Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin.

In what the owners described as a “compromise,” the new policy gives players the option of remaining in the locker room during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Some players have discussed the idea of having entire teams stay in the locker rooms as a way to voice their frustration with the new mandate.

But what if at least five players on every NFL team defy the league’s new policy and take a knee during the national anthem on opening day and in subsequent games?

It’s not likely that the NFL would fine all 32 teams. Moreover, such an act of resistance would re-ignite the issue of the players’ right to express their views on the field. And perhaps remind us what the rebellion was about in the first place—racism, and racist police brutality.

This battle began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem before his team's preseason games to protest police brutality toward black Americans. Throughout that season, other NFL players followed Kaepernick’s example of silent protest. Their crusade widened after Trump launched an attack on the players’ protest during a political rally in Alabama in September of last year. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump bellowed. The next weekend, more than 200 players sat or kneeled in defiance of Trump.

Trump doubled down this week, in effect calling for the deportation of players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.

In their defense, the players can claim a long heritage of patriotic protest. In his famous 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that to bring about needed change, it is often necessary to disobey immoral laws and defy unjust authority.

King would surely object to the NFL’s new policy. Giving players the choice to stay in the locker room during pregame ceremonies is like asking them to move to the back of the bus. It is separate, but not equal.

Hiding in locker rooms undermines the point of protest. Taking a knee on the field is a silent but visible statement of dissent. The NFL policy is designed to make the players’ protest invisible.

The NFL’s new gag rule also violates federal labor law. The National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to engage in any “concerted activities” to support each other in job-related matters. That means everything from using Twitter to complain about unsafe workplaces to holding press conferences that support political candidates or public policies that could improve their working conditions.

By taking a knee, NFL players were engaging in such concerted activities. They weren’t on strike. They weren’t refusing to work. By kneeling, they were standing up not just to protest racist practices but also for players’ rights, expressing solidarity with one another.

Moreover, the NFL adopted the new policy without consulting the National Football League Players Association. Under the union contract, changes in workplace rules have to be negotiated between the union and the league. The union should sue the NFL for violating this longstanding labor-management agreement.

The controversy over the NFL’s new rule has diverted attention away from the core issue that sparked the protest in the first place. The players were seeking to heighten public concern over the epidemic of police mistreatment—and killing—of black Americans. Of the 1,696 players on the NFL’s 32 teams, about 70 percent are African American. As Trump continues to stoke racial fears and bigotry, it is hardly surprising that many of these black athletes feel the need to speak out.

The players should defy the NFL’s ploy to confine their dissent to the locker room. Since the Boston Tea Party, America’s movements for change have been most successful when their protests were public and collective. When the NFL season opens in September, the players should defy the new policy and take a stand by taking a knee.

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