Free speech, in any form of expression, has been a heavily contested topic this weekend in regards to the National Football League (NFL). It began at a rally on Friday, September 22 when President Trump said any football player who disrespects the United States’ flag and anthem is a “son of a bitch” and should be subsequently fired. Besides the obvious use of vulgar and unwarranted language against a private citizen, the real issue and nod towards democratic erosion is the attempted suppression of free speech and polarizing divide among civilian groups.
It’s hard to know what Trump really thinks when he sees people kneeling down to protest during the anthem, but based on other Republican politicians and their constituents’ comments, there seems to be a common belief that the players are protesting the anthem and disrespecting our country. What some people fail to realize is that the NFL players are using the anthem as their medium to protest racial inequality and police brutality; they are not protesting the flag. The intention is not to dishonor our country or veterans, but rather to quietly demonstrate how they cannot — quite literally — stand up for the injustices that black Americans and people of color face to this day. Trump, however, decided this is un-American and this form of protest should be against NFL regulations. It is on this note that the president tries to influence how organizations are run based on his beliefs.
Even more alarming, Trump’s twitter rhetoric and retweets advocated that his followers boycott the NFL in response to the kneeling. This echoes a similar move Trump made in February after Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s brand from its stores. This degree of presidential involvement, while initially off-putting, seems to be more damaging to the already polarized division within the US. Whether Trump is knowingly mobilizing his fan base or not, his actions and words seem to acknowledge and benefit the people who voted for him, while simultaneously overlooking and challenging his opposition. This legitimizes his follower’s beliefs and furthers the already stark division within our nation.
Trump advanced his position and dissatisfaction of the NFL by tweeting twice about how the NFL’s ratings are “way down” this year. Although this is a legitimate case of free speech, it is misleading the public by presenting a false correlation between the boycott and its effect on football’s ratings. Even though this kneeling debate has actually increased viewership for the sport, the fact that Trump continues to misinform and rouse his constituents seems to only augment the divide, obscure truth, and threaten democracy.
While this topic may seem overanalyzed and a simple distraction from more pressing humanitarian issues, it’s important to note this isn’t the first time Trump tried to oppose free speech. Establishing the belief of alternative facts and fake news, claiming the press is the enemy of the American people, and stating there were bad people on both sides during the Charlottesville riot have all been a testament to what Trump’s view on freedom of speech is shaping to be: it’s important to maintain it as long as there are no opposing ideas. While this may appear as a drastic conclusion, it’s at least clear he wants to see no athlete express their political opinion in sports. And if given the authoritarian power, he would make sure to “fire” those who do.
*Photo by Danne, “Untitled” (Pexels), Creative Commons Zero license.