One of the most divisive topics to emerge in professional sports in the last 30 years has been the proliferation of national anthem protests in the NFL.
It began in 2016 with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
Kaepernick was quickly joined by teammate Eric Reid. That, in turn, opened up the floodgates as other NFL players joined in the anthem protests.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with peaceably protesting. That is a fundamentally American right.
The reason those protests have drawn the ire of so many people is that they are interpreted as the ultimate form of disrespect to the flag, the troops and the police.
In 2018, those protests have largely died down. In Week 5 of the current NFL season, one player sat for the anthem, three stayed in the locker room and another three took a knee.
One of the people who knelt in Week 5? Carolina safety Eric Reid. Yes, the same player who was the first to join Kaepernick two years ago. Reid became the first Panthers player to ever kneel for the anthem.
Back in the NFL, Eric Reid takes a knee during the playing of the National Anthem, resuming his protest.
— ABC News (@ABC) October 9, 2018
Despite admitting that the protests have gone “sideways” in August 2017, Reid apparently has no intentions of stopping his anthem demonstrations.
Naturally, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked about it during a news conference Wednesday, according to The Washington Post. (Carolina visits the Redskins on Sunday.) His response was a little surprising considering how staunchly pro-military Rivera has been in the past.
“I believe in the First Amendment and that’s all he did. He exercised his First Amendment,” Rivera said about Reid’s kneeling.
The coach stressed that Reid was well within his rights to protest during the anthem.
“As far as I’m concerned he’s an American citizen that’s entitled to exercise his rights,” Rivera said.
As far as the coach is concerned, Reid has been fitting in with the Panthers despite his polarizing protests.
“He’s been great,” Rivera said. “He’s fit in exactly the way we’ve hoped for. Again, at the end of the day, when we made this decision we made it about football and football only.”
Asked if Reid has been fitting in with the team, the coach said, “Very much so, he’s assimilated very nicely.”
That’s all great. Teamwork and camaraderie are just two of the many reasons football is such a great sport.
But Rivera is dead wrong about the First Amendment protecting Reid.
Contrary to what often gets said on internet message boards and in the media, the First Amendment only protects against government censorship. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” it says, in part.
The First Amendment literally has nothing to do with an employee of a private business entity, which is what Reid is in the context of the NFL.
Rivera, the son of an Army officer who served in Vietnam, was a key factor in the Panthers winning the NFL’s first Purple Heart award in 2013 for their work with veterans in the Charlotte area. The coach and his team certainly deserve credit for that.
But Rivera, much like many grousing over First Amendment violations when it comes to stopping anthem protests, cannot hide behind the Constitution on this one.
The First Amendment isn’t what’s protecting anthem protesters. It’s the NFL.
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