WASHINGTON, September 26, 2017 — During a recent speech in Alabama, President Trump condemned professional football players for kneeling during the national anthem. Denouncing them in no uncertain terms, he advised team owners to fire players who fail to stand.
Players openly defied the President by joining those kneeling in subsequent games, locking arms in solidarity.
Trump believes that the NFL should institute a rule requiring all players to stand while the national anthem is played, noting that every American should be proud to honor those who fought for the right of all Americans to be free.
The players argue that they have a constitutional right to free speech and are therefore entitled to express their discontent with the American system and its racial bias. The most effective way to express their discontent, they reason, is to do so in front of the large TV audiences that faithfully tune in to professional football contests every week.
Prior to being elected president, Trump had been a businessman throughout his entire life. The views he expressed this weekend combine his patriotism with his business background.
Athletes kneeling during the national anthem turn the President’s stomach. He, like a great many Americans, believes that no matter one’s political views, all Americans, including NFL players, should stand united when the national anthem is played or sung.
Trump considers football players to be entertainers. They earn extraordinarily high salaries simply for chasing an oddly shaped ball around a hundred-yard field on fall weekends.
He correctly regards NFL players as employees of the teams in the league. NFL team owners and management have the right and the duty to ensure that their employees—the members of each team—work to maximize the value and profitability of both the franchise and the league.
The NFL and its teams already control player appearance down to the last detail. For example, players must wear specifically-designed and numbered jerseys that clearly identify them as members of the team. These rules cover the appearance and design of uniforms, right down the spikes on NFL-approved footwear, the team helmet, individual mouthpieces and even the socks that players wear.
Teams must use an NFL-approved ball that meets all league regulations, right down to the requirement that the ball be inflated to a specific pressure. Almost like an army platoon, players must follow the direction of the coaches on the field, and follow strict schedules and observe team curfews during the season while maintaining themselves in top physical condition.
If a player performs badly during the season, he is fired, just as any other employee in any other business would be if he or she fell short of company rules and standards.
The simple fact that NFL players are employees is what gets under the skin of President Trump. Indeed, this reality also profoundly disturbs a great many Americans who are fans of the game.
The fact that NFL players are employees derails the “free speech” argument in the context of a game or team event. Virtually all employers across the country have and enforce workplace rules, often insisting on dress codes while always expecting certain performance standards from their employees.
In addition, most companies forbid employees other than designated officers or press representatives to speak for the company without authorization. What they do or say on their own time is generally regarded as their right.
NFL players have a First Amendment right to express themselves outside of league events, but they cannot express anything that is against the rules while on company time, i.e., while in uniform and representing their team on the field.
That’s why President Trump regards NFL players as extremely well-paid employees who should be required to follow the rules of the game as well as longstanding NFL traditions regarding team decorum. Trump wants the NFL to put a “no kneeling during the anthem” rule into effect, feeling this would solve the problem.
There is a time and place for everything. A football game is not the time for employee-entertainers to protest social injustice. They are paid up to tens of millions of dollars annually to battle it out on the gridiron for paying customers, whether they are in the stadium or part of the TV audience. Given the economic stakes, team owners have the right to protect their investment and run their business efficiently.
The type of protest behavior we’ve recently witnessed has become standard practice for many entertainers.
A starting quarterback in the NFL earns about $20 million per year. If he did something else for a living, he would earn much less. The amount needed to induce him to play football is probably a tiny fraction of what he’s actually paid. The difference between what he’s paid and what he’d be willing to accept is the economic rent that he is paid for his talent.
Today it seems that those who earn large economic rents—athletes, actors, singers and other entertainers—feel obligated to support trending causes. They seem to want to cure every social injustices around and to demand the same from their audiences.
Millions of Americans side with Trump on the NFL national anthem issue. Both NFL game attendance and the game’s TV audiences have declined in recent years, much like the eroding fan base of ESPN’s once robust sports channels, whose broadcasts have increasingly become politicized.
The NFL’s national anthem controversy may end up accelerating the league’s own continuing decline in viewership both on the field and on TV. As viewership wanes, advertising rates will decline, which will negatively impact the owners and inflated player salaries as well. An NFL team’s businessman-owner may very well take a more restrictive view toward player expressions on the field during game time.
All NFL players should stand for the national anthem, specifically to honor those who have fought and died for our freedom. For once, let’s allow faithful American football fans and their families to forget about divisive politics for at least the two or three hours needed to play a game on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s insist that the NFL’s high rent players do what they are paid to do during each week of the season and save their protests for another time and place.
Let’s just play football.