NFL players’ stance was a job issue, not a constitutional one

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Last week President Trump blasted NFL players who chose to kneel or stand together with arms locked during the playing or singing of the national anthem. Calling such behavior disrespectful of our flag and country, Trump suggested that NFL owners fire or suspend players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, and later called on football fans to boycott NFL games.

The president was not alone. Nearly everybody has weighed in on this subject. Some have discovered a new patriotic fervor and joined Trump in his denunciation. Others have developed a new passion for free speech and cheered the players’ actions.

The Herald is not going to take a stance (so to speak) on whether the players should stand, kneel or form a conga line. We do, however, take issue with the president’s (and others’) attempt to turn what is essentially a job-related issue into a constitutional one.

Contrary to myth, the First Amendment does not guarantee free speech across the board. What it does is prohibit the government from making laws that restrict speech. The NFL is not the government, nor are team owners. They are private employers, and depending on the players’ terms of employment, entitled to determine what their players may or may not say while they are representing the team. Some owners have supported their players’ protests, others have threatened to fire players who take a knee.

Certainly they have a right to do either, assuming no contractual obligation to the contrary. Any other employer would be equally within their rights to discipline or terminate, say, a fast-food worker or a police officer who sported a political symbol or joined rallies while in uniform. When you represent your boss, you’re not representing yourself.

We also believe that the public outrage at the players is unwarranted. To protest injustice is not unpatriotic, nor are the anthem and the flag sacred. Whatever the merits of the protest, the players are carrying it out in a civilized manner. They harm nobody and destroy nothing merely by expressing their dissatisfaction with America’s civil rights record. Nobody calls for improvements to a country he despises, only to one he thinks is worth the effort.

Which is why Trump’s response is so inappropriate. Calling for someone to “get that (expletive) off the field” is not only an abuse of his influence, but also very short-sighted. America is not the worse for football players taking a knee; it will be if they are afraid to do so.

— Editorial Board

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