NFL's National Anthem Policy Exposes Free Speech Hypocrisy of Right, Left, and Trump
"You have to stand proudly for the national anthem," Trump says, "or you shouldn't be playing."
Donald Trump, who won the presidency in part by promising voters he would stand against the oppression of political correctness, is now taking a victory lap after successfully pressuring the National Football League to protect the delicate feelings of its snowflake audience.
The NFL announced yesterday that all players on the field during the singing of the national anthem would be forbidden to kneel, sit, or show any disrespect whatsoever. Teams that allow players to publicly protest racism and police brutality will be subject to fines. Players will be expected to confine their dissent to the locker room, concealing it from easily offended consumers of sports entertainment. GOP spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany summarized the new policy thusly during an appearance on Kennedy last night:
Players will respect our military, they will respect what our flag stands for and the unity of what our national anthem stands for, and if they don't want to respect it, they can take a hike and go to the locker room. Now everyone has to respect our military, including multimillion-dollar football players.
The new policy is undoubtedly crafted to appease not just some viewers but Trump, who has repeatedly attacked the NFL for failing to punish the defiant players. "I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still, I think it's good," Trump said on Fox and Friends this morning. "You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country." Vice President Mike Pence tweeted the news, adding a single remark: "#WINNING."
Sadly, the NFL's bowing to Trump's whims may indeed be a win of sorts for this administration. It will please the many conservatives who routinely complain that the campus left is hypersensitive but embrace the victim role when the shoe is on the other foot. Just take a look at the Twitter feed of Turning Points USA Director Charlie Kirk, a well-known critic of political correctness on campus.
Kirk's pinned tweet is video footage of him discussing campus culture with Sean Hannity, Eric Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. "College campuses have become a place where the administrators and the elites want everybody to look different but think the same," Kirk explains. "And it's all about conformity. If you have any point of dissension from the status quo of liberal orthodoxy, you will be punished." Just under the pinned tweet is Kirk's most recent tweet: "Stand for the national anthem!" Talk about conformity.
The NFL is of course a private entity, and requiring players to stand for the anthem isn't a First Amendment violation. But as National Review's David French points out in a terrific New York Times op-ed piece, Google, Mozilla, and Yale are all private too. Yet conservatives see nothing wrong with bemoaning these entities' internal crackdowns on speech. Indeed, concern that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are censoring conservatives is now a major concern for the right. There was even a panel discussion about it at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.
Middlebury College shouldn't sit idly by while students literally attack Charles Murray, and Twitter shouldn't scrub all non-leftist views from its platform. They shouldn't do those things because they have made commitments to the spirit of the First Amendment. They say free speech matters to them, and it is perfectly fair for conservatives to hold their feet to the fire when they fall short of those commitments.
But conservatives are being brazenly hypocritical when they celebrate the NFL's decision to muzzle its players. The NFL might not have made any commitment to free expression, but its players were engaged in one of the most civil and least disruptive forms of protest imaginable. Saying that simply kneeling for the national anthem is so offensive that it must be confined to the locker room or banned outright reflects the same hypersensitivity that plagues the social justice left.
Ironically, the best defense of the NFL's new protest ban is an argument most often put forward by leftists who defend disinvitations and shut-downs of offensive speakers on campus. I have frequently seen the following XKCD cartoon posted in response to such incidents:
Guys. The NFL ban on kneeling is absolutely awful and I hate it. It is anti free speech.
It is also 100% in line with the "showing you the door" attitude on free speech you've been pushing the last several years.
Please think hard about that. pic.twitter.com/M8tr47xTnK
— PoliMath (@politicalmath) May 24, 2018
The government was partly involved in the NFL case, since Trump's displeasure was a motivating factor. But there's little doubt the league was also trying to appease some viewers who were uncomfortable with the players' protests. This is what comes from defending a safe-space mentality: more safe spaces, and not just on the campus quad but in football stadiums as well.