Is the NFL confused about free speech?

NFL preseason game, San Diego vs. San Francisco

Of all the moral preening done this past week, myself included, a noticeable voice and face remained quiet. In Manhattan, the deafening silence from the NFL Commissioner and his office was hard to ignore. As cable news and talk radio, both sports and political took sides, the league took no stance at all. At some point soon however, expect that to change as Colin Kaepernick isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

The idea that Commissioner Roger Goodell would offer zero guidance to the Golden Goose that is the NFL is curious. But timing being what it is, and the significance of the coming date, means he won’t have the luxury of the sidelines much longer. Frankly speaking, the optics of saying nothing will grow louder than the words and actions from the sports world’s newest social activists.

When the league kicks of its first full Sunday of football, the date will bear significance. The kind this league can’t afford to ignore and/or hope simply slinks always. September 11th won’t allow for a possible mass protest by newly minted activists to go scripted or otherwise. The potential alienation of a majority swath of its fanbase is something Goodell will have to manage. As a member of that fan base, he’ll need to hit the mark, and not miss on his message.

The NFL is a lot of things. A lot of things I don’t like. It frowns upon and bans the most insignificant of deviation. Socks have to be properly worn, it’s length monitored each game. Headbands, wristbands, eyeblack, etc, can’t be adorned with symbolism regardless of it’s target. And yet all of these are some variety of freedom of speech, and all have been quashed by the DeathStar that is the NFL, or more specifically, the Commissioner’s office.

Will Colin Kaepernick suffer the same limit on his free speech?

This is the latest and one of the most potentially significant questions the league has and will face in coming days, weeks, and years. This same league that told an organization they can’t honor slain police officers with a helmet sticker in Dallas, has yet to say a thing to a second string quarterback about sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem?

If a player can’t write and display scripture or a tribute on his eye black, how do you ignore the socks with pigs dressed as law enforcement in San Francisco?

Camero Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

***Read-League fines Cameron Heyward for tribute on his eye

If a player can’t write an initial or message on his shoes during a game, how does a player get to make a social argument that is potentially divisive if not offensive, to people in law enforcement and many in the military who support this league, and are prominent fixtures game in and game out?

If the optics of a running back cold-cocking his fiancé is jarring and draws the ire and subsequent blackball from this league, what are the optics of players objecting to the National Anthem on 9/11 or any other Sunday, Monday or Thursday night?

What if this were to happen at a Super Bowl where the National Anthem is a pretty significant moment in the lead up to the biggest game of the year?

If all these are an affront to the day to day that is the business of the NFL, why has the league sat quiet with a quarterback advocating his opinion through what so many would deem offensive actions, while adjudicating others?

Can the National Football League afford to capitulate to the social and liberal whims of one, while bringing the hammer to others because the optics are less complicated?


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Don’t forget, this league went to court over the inflation of footballs, suspended and all but dismantled a coaching staff in New Orleans as a reaction to a purported bounty, and will fine a player for not wearing his socks properly.

These optics, courtesy of Colin Kaepernick, are much wider and of greater significance because the question is about policing what is in one’s head and heart, and his right to talk about and act upon them.

In the act of sitting/kneeling, and offending many, probably too many, the league and this commissioner may have finally met its match. Roger Goodell is faced with a situation where acting in what could be his opinion as the “best interest of the NFL”, may fly directly in the face of someone’s right to free speech and his right to exercise it.

And it won’t be just Kaepernick’s.

For the record, I vehemently disagree with what Colin Kaepernick does and says. That said, as someone who has proudly displayed the Gadsden flag, and sworn by its words “Don’t Tread On Me”, I can agree to disagree with Kaepernick. As George Will once wrote, the Bill of Rights guarantees me many things, but not the right to NOT be offended.

The NFL has a problem that only gets worse with every fine, suspension, or meeting in Manhattan. On this topic, any of the above would not sit well with a rank and file who already see Goodell as an adversary.

While many players do and have voiced both agreement and dissent with Kaepernick’s actions, they won’t let a commissioner they revile jackboot a teammate. You want to see solidarity, watch the union get in line if his office looks to censor or curb player expression on this topic or the next socially divisive one. This isn’t team celebration after a TD, this is something fundamentally secure, regardless of your political ideology.

This is a new frontier for the NFL. It’s also one that may not offer a clear victory for a commissioner used to racking them up against the players.

Colin Kaepernick, QB San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick is no social hero in my book. But what he’s saying and doing is protected by those who serve and died and offered their last full measure of devotion.

I find his actions repugnant, but I’ll agree with his right to keep on saying and doing what he has been. In this potential looming battle, the NFL may have finally met its match. This player may have finally found some leverage against an office that has used the same without equal against the players for a long, long time.

For the players, even those who don’t agree, they’ll get in line with him on this against a commissioner who’s worked against them at every turn.

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