Stand Up & Shut Up

Let me preface this column by saying I’m not a sports fan. And of all the sports on the planet, I find American football the least appealing. So while some may say I have no skin in this game, no horse in this race (golly we have a lot of sports-based clichés), let me remind you I am an American with opinions and no compunction about sharing them freely:

The NFL, that most American of all American institutions, has chosen a path that is distinctly un-American.

I write this fresh off a Facebook shouting match with a bunch of football nuts who believe black players should stand up and shut up during the national anthem. Sing, don’t sing, but you better stand up for the country that allows you to make your living playing sports, they say.

“Boy,” they think but don’t often add, at least not out loud, as a punctuational slur.

The football nuts’ overarching point – latent racism aside – is when you’re at work you’re not free to express your views, political, moral, religious, whatever. I find this laughable, and not just because I’m currently on the clock expressing my views with reckless abandon.

Truth is, we are a nation that makes it our business to express our views at the office water cooler daily and as a matter of tradition. Monday morning quarterbacking, all the reasons Kyla should have won “The Voice,” why the president is the greatest/worst thing that’s ever happened to America – offering our opinions to often unappreciative colleagues is who we are.

During my Facebook fun, I said forcing someone to stand up for the national anthem just because they’re on the clock is akin to your boss forcing you to take the cross around your neck off when you’re working. Predictably, everyone in the thread said their bosses had done exactly that and they were totally fine with complying. Which is total baloney, unless I’d somehow happened onto a thread consisting solely of people who use turning or spinning machines for a living and wearing jewelry is a safety concern.

The other fun excuse offered for forced standing is “our brave men and women in uniform.” Such a slap in the face to their sacrifices, these players who would rather take a knee than pay homage to an institution that for time out of mind has imprisoned or killed them for things white people only get a swat for. Never mind the sacrifices of our military are meant to uphold our rights, of which free expression is paramount.

I believe both the NFL’s decision to force players to stand for the national anthem and football fans’ rabid insistence for same flows from the same stream: inconvenience. Fiscal inconvenience for the league, moral inconvenience for the fans.

It was inconvenient for the NFL to spend a season dealing with players of color exercising their free-speech rights because the league bled viewers. It was inconvenient for fans who felt forced on Sunday afternoons to confront some horrible truths about America, namely the long history of racism we show no signs of growing out of and how predominately white men acting in the name of “the law” treat people of color in communities they’re meant to protect and serve.

And now the league has proven once again it’s utterly tone-deaf, just as it has when players have behaved badly and in the face of overwhelming evidence that the sport’s brutality is responsible for crippling and lifelong brain injuries in its players. Instead of standing behind its players – whose wealth and celebrity won’t protect them when the police come calling, as an NBA star recently proved – the NFL tells them to shut up and sing. Or hide in the locker room until called.

The fans bear a great deal of responsibility for the league’s decision. Tuning out football just because men of color take a knee before the game to protest how they’re treated in the Land of the Free speaks volumes about how deeply embedded the culture of racism is in this nation. Suddenly, what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer makes total sense.

And before you say “ABC fired Roseanne for things she said in her private time,” consider this: Roseanne, whether she likes it or not, is an ambassador for ABC. As such, she is essentially always at work. Maybe that’s unfair, but no one is forced to be a celebrity with a Twitter account and loose-cannon fingers.

The NFL players are ambassadors for the league, on the field and off. And when they use their voices to provoke change and promote justice in America, even on the field – especially on the field – why on earth would anyone want to silence that?

As Hollywood grapples with the fallout of its century-long blind eye to gender bias, sexual harassment and abuse of women, so too the National Football League will see a day of reckoning over how it failed to stand up for and support its workforce.

Failed its workforce. When it had the chance to do something right and didn’t.

In the immortal words of another famous tweeter with loose-cannon fingers: SAD!!!

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