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Tackling Free Speech in Football

Published on November 1, 2017, at 5:02 p.m.
by Rachel Tomchin.

In a country full of disagreement, “64% of Americans watch NFL football.”

While there are many enjoyable pastimes, NFL football has continued to be a crowd favorite for the past 30 years. From watching it on your couch to traveling hundreds of miles to see your team play, it’s something that brings people together.

But, could this form of entertainment be disrupted by another debate?

How it all started 
The first sporting event to play “The Star Spangled Banner” was in 1918, during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 1 in the World Series.

It wasn’t until World War II that it became a ritual before baseball games and soon spread to other sporting events. It’s a way of honoring our country before we sit and enjoy some of our favorite pastimes.

Once a symbol of unity and respect for our country, the playing of the song has now been turned into yet another controversy. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit while the anthem played during the first three pre-season football games to protest police brutality against people of color.

Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid and the Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane joined the protest on Sept. 1, 2016. It then expanded to players from the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, to name a few.

After opting out of his contract for his final season, Kaepernick is now a free agent.

I am an advocate of free speech and understand he is using the NFL as his platform to reach a large number of people. However, his actions are affecting the NFL’s bottom line, which is being taken very seriously by the NFL owners. In addition, despite still having the skill to be a quarterback in the NFL, Kaepernick has not received any job offers.

Loss of viewership
This season, numbers are down by 7.42 percent for the NFL. Although Kaepernick is not the only reason for lower numbers, he is playing a part in the decline.

Rather than addressing this issue in another manner, such as holding press conferences or TV appearances to share his ideas, Kaepernick has targeted an entire market of football fans — many of whom use sports as an escape from everyday trials and tribulations. Football is generally a time to enjoy watching your team play for a couple of hours with a community of people who share the same love of the game and where politics is rarely topic of discussion.

Now consider President Donald Trump’s response to the situation. He tweeted on Sept. 23, 2017: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect…. our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

President Trump is no longer a private citizen, but is now the president of the United States. Thus, his tweets could be deemed government interference, or at the very least have a chilling effect on a person’s right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Was the response by either President Trump or Colin Kaepernick the best way to address the situation? In regard to the president, absolutely not. This matter is between a private organization and one of its former employees, and President Trump’s involvement is lighting an even bigger fire.

As for Kaepernick, maybe. In a similar style of John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali, Kaepernick is using sports as a platform to deliver his message to America.

Addressing the situation
Losing viewers, the NFL is bearing the brunt of the protest. This is a difficult situation to address, and it takes a good public relations strategy to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes. Professionals in any industry are expected to keep personal views to themselves … not to hinder them from freedom of speech, but to shine the best light on the company that they chose to represent.

In no way does this mean you can’t have your own personal values, but “what most Americans generally don’t know is that the Constitution doesn’t apply to private corporations at all.” With that being said, you don’t have to change who you are or what you believe. But you do have to monitor how you present yourself when representing the face of a private corporation.

Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, believes the players have a right to speak out for their beliefs. The NFL policy states that players should stand during the national anthem, but it’s not a requirement. It might be the league’s policy, but it’s not every coach’s policy.

Jerry Jones, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, addressed the protest before their game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 25, 2017, in an effective way. He locked arms with his entire team and kneeled before the national anthem played and then stood during it.

Jones said that Sunday night, “If there is anything that is disrespectful to the flag then we will not play.” (link)

Kneeling and standing as a team was Jones’ way of showing unity and respect. They are a team and will act like a team. Yes, many of the players probably have different views, but as professionals they are following their coach’s orders.

Jemele Hill, a journalist for ESPN, was suspended for tweets from her personal account addressing the Dallas Cowboys’ actions, because they went against ESPN’s social media policy. While it can be extremely difficult keeping your opinions to yourself when you care strongly about a subject, you must follow company policy. That is something we will face daily in the PR industry.

Reactions from sponsors
According to a New York Times article, many sponsors — Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Ford, Bose, Hyundai and Under Armour — have shared their opinions on the controversy in the best way possible.

They remain unbiased.

Each sponsor states their respect for America and the flag, but they note their respect for individuals’ right of free speech, too. This neutral approach is the professional path to take. It is more important to keep a good name in the industry, rather than burn bridges because of personal views.

Freedom of speech is so important, but was using one of the most favorable forms of entertainment in America — football — the best outlet? I am a strong advocate for free speech, but there should be a time and place for everything, whether you are the president of the United States or an NFL quarterback.


  1. Post comment

    This was a very well-written article that covered both helpful background information and highlighted important PR guidelines, so job well done! While watching an NFL game, I saw the NFL’s new commercial that featured several players speaking of their support and admiration of US troops. I think this was a smart move in response to the backlash of players sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. It’s smart because it clarifies the players intentions behind sitting, separates the individual players from the NFL and includes the support that both the NFL players and the NFL organization have for the men and women serving our country. In my opinion, this particular commercial is a good transition piece to get people to realize that the NFL and their players support the troops but have issues with certain areas within our government.


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