With the startling uptick in political statements by US sports icons and organizations, there has been a commensurate, and deeply troubling, rise in support for silencing such athletes and organizations. Although these political stances have been received positively by what appears to be a public majority, many upset fans and sports analysts believe that sports leagues and players should remain solely focused on their professional, business interests and discard political and social considerations. This inclination represents a disturbing tendency toward the suppression and condemnation of free speech.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during national anthem proceedings in a show of support for Black Lives Matter and opposition to racial injustice and police brutality. In response to Kaepernick’s protest, which continued throughout the NFL season, many criticized the quarterback’s actions (and the actions of those inspired by him) as unacceptably disrespectful to the United States, its military service members, and the American flag. Similarly, the NFL recently announced that future Super Bowls might be moved from Texas because the state proposed anti-transgender bathroom legislation. In a statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy explained that the league’s aim is to ensure that NFL events continue to “prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, warned the NFL to refrain from moving future Super Bowls from the state, stating, “They need to learn their place in the United States, which is to govern football, not politics.”
Such movements to silence or vilify professional sports organizations and athletes’ decisions to exhibit political and social consciousness in their personal or business activities is deeply troubling. Although athletes and sports figures are, in their own sense, celebrities in the public eye, they are guaranteed the same constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression that their fans and viewers exercise. They are not out of “their place,” nor are they “un-American” if they choose to do so; it is their right to speak out as they see fit. To say otherwise is to imply that those in the sports industry cannot and should not make professional decisions based on freedom of expression, a cherished American value.
The political views of athletes and sports organizations, like those of Americans generally, are diverse. In 2014, several NBA stars donned t-shirts during pregame warmups with the slogan, “I can’t breathe,” in solidarity with Eric Garner, who died in the aftermath of a police officer’s chokehold. Most recently, NBA head coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have both spoken out against President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. More provocatively, Golden State Warriors point guard star Stephen Curry called the president an “‘asset’ without the ‘et’” in response to Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank’s praise of Trump. Several players from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have openly expressed their disinclination to visit the White House should President Trump extend the customary formal invitation. By contrast, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a noted friend of the president, although he has deflected inquiries about their relationship. Other sports figures, like former basketball star Dennis Rodman and former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, have voiced their support for Trump’s presidential candidacy.
Just as the content of expression varies, the impact of this expression is also highly variable. The NBA decided to relocate the 2017 NBA All-Star weekend from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans, Louisiana in response to North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law. Although the NBA had to endure further logistical issues to move All-Star weekend, Charlotte lost out much more, suffering an estimated $100 million loss in revenue. The NBA freely decided to take a social stance on a salient issue in contemporary America to benefit their brand and business image, and succeeded in doing so: the 2017 All-Star weekend was a great success, both for the NBA’s business and the city of New Orleans. Of course, not all instances of free expression in sports are successful. NBA star LeBron James chose to attend a political rally in Cleveland to express his support for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. His effort, it appears, did not help much: Clinton lost Ohio to Trump by 8 percent of the vote in the general election. But overall, the resulting success or failure of free expression from the sports world is not an appropriate criticism of that expression.
The diversity of political opinion and varying successes of expressing those opinions among professional athletes reflects the importance of freedom of expression in our society.
We may not agree with the views that athletes and sports organizations hold, and they certainly have no obligation to voice their political opinions. But when they do, to call them un-American or attack their freedom of expression is dangerous. Any critique of athletes or sports organizations has to be grounded in a fundamental understanding of their right to freedom of expression and, indeed, of choice. Although, in our sports obsession, we may often forget it, athletes are citizens too. When the government or media tries to hammer the sports industry and its players for being politically active or making politically-motivated decisions, they should do so remembering that members of the sports world have rights guaranteed by the First Amendment as well. If we begin censoring celebrities, it is a short step to the suppression of the sacred individual rights of citizens.
Individual athletes and the organizations they play for must be guaranteed the right to express their opinions on social and political controversies in our time, regardless of whether the public majority finds their stances agreeable. Our commitment to freedom of expression validates those rights. In fact, if we demand that athletes and sports organizations stay silent about political and social issues, we risk implying that other Americans—theoretically, all Americans—should conduct their personal and business lives without regard for political or social considerations either. If anything is un-American, that certainly is. Calls to suppress athletes and sports organizations’ freedom of expression must end.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.