The NFL (or “No Fun League,” as some have dubbed it) got caught between a rock and a hard place when Colin Kaepernick decided to sit during the playing of the National Anthem before games, to protest racism. A major chunk of the NFL’s fan base is very much America and Apple Pie, and disrespect for the nation and the flag is the stuff of fisticuffs. Two-thirds of the NFL’s players, however, are black, and a lot of NFL fans came out in support of Kaepernick’s protest as well. The matter, which might have passed if let be, elevated to rock-and-a-hard-place status when Trump interjected his opinion, and inflamed the controversy to a prominent level.

The league just announced, in a dubious “split the baby” decision, that it would fine teams whose players did not stand for the Anthem, but would accept players staying in the locker room. Personally, I’m not particularly swayed in one direction or another on the matter – I don’t care for this sort of virtue-signal protest, I think that there are too many “first-world-problem” over-inflations of matters, and I think that people who run down the entire nation in this fashion are generally assholes, but I don’t demand anyone do anything to force conformity to my view.

I’m not going to criticize the NFL for its decision, but not because I like it.

A core tenet of a society based on liberty is freedom of association, a freedom that includes the right to voluntarily enter into contracts. While one cannot give away one’s rights via contract (that’s the “inalienable” bit that Jefferson wrote about), one can agree to certain standards of behavior while in the employ of another.

That is what many people miss when they complain about the NFL denying Kaepernick’s right to protest. When in the uniform of his team, and involved in a game for the team that’s paying him, he’s not exempt from the team’s mandates about behavior. Just as FedEx can mandate that a delivery driver not wear a KKK hat while on the job and wearing the uniform, an NFL team can tell its players “we expect you, as a condition of employment, to stand for the National Anthem.” A player is free to negotiate that point, and is free to refuse the contract should that point be deemed egregious. What the player does on his own time is another matter. Yes, the team could attempt to expand the rule to cover 24/7 during the term of the contract, but it doesn’t have the ability to force a player to sign that contract, and competitive forces will serve to keep demands from getting extreme.

Some might argue that the league is far more powerful than the players, and that the government should step in to protect the players’ “rights,” but the players are unionized, giving them plenty of leverage and recourse. That aside, the First Amendment debars the government from infringing on rights. It does not tell private citizens the rules by which they must interact with each other, as long as those interactions are voluntary.

About the only quibble I have with the NFL is the antitrust exemption it enjoys. While I’m generally skeptical of government’s “trust-busting,” a carve-out for one organization is cronyism, not liberty. But, the existence of that exception does not bootstrap government authority to interfere with the NFL’s relationship with its employees, so the exemption is its own separate issue.

My main complaint is with the people who demand collective action, either against players who kneel or against the league that seeks to manage their in-uniform behavior. The NFL is a product, and if we don’t like it, we can take our business elsewhere, but we can’t force the product’s suppliers to deliver exactly what we want.

As for the players and their right to protest, I suspect that the league wouldn’t be as troubled if they protested on their own time, in civilian clothing, as is rational. By doing so in uniform and during games, they are leveraging others’ property and others’ livelihoods for their personal priorities. They are using the fame of the brand they are being paid to represent, rather than the fame they’ve achieved as individual performers, to catch eyes and ears. And, if such protests cost the league money, that will adversely impact the earnings of their teammates going forward. I wonder if Kaepernick gave much thought to either that or the question of whether his teammates would feel uncomfortable by his distraction from their collective job.

The exercise of one’s rights is supposed to be limited to the point where they infringe on another’s. A football player doing something his teammates and bosses don’t want, while in a common uniform and under contract/salary, is an infringement on their rights. They, not the government, should sort it out. The rest of us are free to judge and react, but we should remember, lest we think of demanding government involvement, that we don’t get to infringe anyone’s right’s either.

Trump, unfortunately, has mishandled this matter, and by that I don’t refer to his personal opinion. As one sworn to uphold the Constitution, any suggestion that he’d use the power of his office to coax a response is out of bounds. I’d have no problem with him expressing an opinion, but it should include a definitive statement that the matter is one for the league and the players to resolve, and for the fans to judge via the free market. His latest bit, suggesting that kneelers should “perhaps leave the country,” is also highly improper. I don’t care if you agree with him, he’s of the government, and that comes with obligations.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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