NFL Hypocrisy: They Refuse to Ban Kneeling, But Banned All These Other Things


During the height of the national anthem protest controversy last autumn, statements like this one from Suzanne Nossel in The Washington Post were very much en vogue:

“The threat to free-speech rights from the White House is unmistakable. If NFL owners do as the president asks, no matter what justification they give, the bedrock principle that the government cannot abridge the free-speech rights of individuals will have been breached.”

Apparently, NFL players have an unalienable right to absolute freedom of speech in the workplace. It seems that no player can face reproach for offending the fans — the ones who pay their salaries, in case we’d all forgotten — lest we violate the Eleventy-Sixth Amendment:

“The right of a well-remunerated group of athletes to kneel during the national anthem in protest of some formless goal, being necessary for something that Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith can pontificate about for nigh on 15 minutes every Monday morning, shall not be abridged.”

But that freedom of speech only applies to kneeling for the national anthem. Players who take a stand on the field on any other controversial (or not so controversial) topic are on their own. No cause célèbre. No op-eds in their defense. No implications that those who oppose what they’re doing are secretly bigots. Nothing.

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If you don’t believe me, believe Robert Jackson of Melbourne, Florida. He’s the writer behind a letter to the editor that’s going viral on social media as another NFL season approaches:

Now, let’s go through this point-by-point: “In 2012 the NFL had an issue with Tim Tebow kneeling for each game to pray; they also had an issue with Tebow wearing the phrase John 3:16 as part of his blackout to avoid glare, and made him take it off.”

This is only half true; the NFL has never had a problem with Tebow (or anyone else) kneeling in prayer before a game. The rest of it is actually factual, however.

Do you think the NFL should fine anthem kneelers?

As you’ll see a few times during this list, the NFL rather jealously guards against the slightest deviation from its uniform policy, even when the policy involves free speech. This is a long-standing NFL rule — one where the enforcement didn’t generate much controversy, in spite of the fact that it involved Mr. Tebow expressing his religious beliefs. Even without the rule, it’s worth noting that the NFL and the media always seemed to view Tebow’s expression of his religious beliefs with a warier eye than they have with anthem protesters, something that will be important to remember for later.

“In 2013 the NFL fined Brandon Marshall for wearing green cleats to raise awareness for people with mental health disorders.” Again, true. Marshall, then a wide receiver with the Bears, has been very public about his battle with a personality disorder and wanted to do something to draw attention to Mental Health Awareness Week. This should have been the most uncontroversial thing in the world, but enforcing corporate conformity to the uniform code is apparently more important than doing the same thing for the national anthem. At least we can take solace in the fact that the $10,500 fine Marshall received made his cause that much more visible, but this is still an example of the NFL not really caring about “free speech.”

“In 2015 Robert Griffin III (RG3) entered a post-game press conference wearing a shirt that said “Know Jesus Know Peace” but was forced to turn it inside out by an NFL uniform inspector before speaking at the podium.” Again, true. This was because (it was said) the shirt wasn’t a Nike product. The antipathy toward free expression of religion is one particularly appalling strain in the NFL’s policies, but it’s a private organization and that’s its right. If this were enforced across the board it would be fine, but apparently people’s religious beliefs aren’t as sacrosanct as the ability to disrespect the anthem, the flag and those who have sacrificed for what both represent.

DeAngelo Williams fined in 2015: Again, true. Bringing attention to the fight against grave illness is another thing less important than the right to disrespect the anthem. Nice work.

William Gay fined for bringing attention to domestic violence? I know this will shock you, but this is again true. On the other hand, the NFL already does a really good job at bringing attention to domestic violence.

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The NFL preventing the Cowboys from wearing the decal on their helmet in honor of police officers killed in Dallas back in 2016? Yep, accurate. Protesting the police is protected, standing up for them isn’t. This decade has truly been a strange upside-down for professional football.

The last one about the 9/11 cleats is true, as well, although with an asterisk. In a rare instance of sanity, the NFL backed off that threat.

There are several object lessons in all of this. The primary one — above the league’s heartless antipathy to religious expression or disease awareness — is that the NFL has been very clear about its ruthless desire to enforce protocol. The only time it backed off here was on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, which is rather telling. Yes, the owners have instituted a policy that confines anthem protests to the locker room — and have backed off of enforcing it for the moment.

One can reasonably deduce from this that the NFL puts the right of players to use the national anthem as a platform to air ill-formed, vague grievances about America at roughly the same level of importance as honoring 9/11, and much more important and less controversial than, say, drawing attention to domestic violence or mental health awareness.

The amount of air time and column-inches devoted to paeans to free speech since former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started all this has been particularly mind-boggling. Yet, where was that gusto at any other time? There were some laments over what happened to Williams and Marshall, but certainly nothing resembling tenacity on the part of the Fourth Estate in defense of free speech. As for Tebow and RG3, not even that much.

In short, this isn’t about free speech. It’s about unimpeded speech for those the media agree with. Anyone else can effectively sod off. And as for the NFL, this is simply the ultimate hypocrisy. If NFL executives want to allow free speech, I can think of a myriad of other ways they can begin that don’t involve disrespect for those who have served this country.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture