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NFL protests divide the nation on issues of free speech

September 27, 2017

As the country reacts to the NFL’s recent decision to protest social injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem, we as citizens of the United States are being thrust into a position where we must take a stance on whether or not this is socially acceptable.

The issue began in 2016, with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem at a professional football game to protest police brutality in the U.S. Since then, dozens of other NFL players have joined his cause and voiced their opinions on how minorities are treated in this country. What began with a kneel for police brutality has since expanded to encompass a wider realm of social injustice.

The country is becoming divided on this issue as prominent figures such as President Trump and Stevie Wonder publicly take sides. One side argues that taking a knee is a gesture of disrespect to the flag and the veterans that have defended it. The other argues that this is a matter of free speech, and that it is commendable for the players to use their prominence to express their views.

For students at UW-River Falls, this issue may seem distant. However, there is always the possibility that members of the UWRF sports teams may decide to take similar action. Students must decide whether to support such a decision should it occur.

There are multiple angles that must be considered when making such a decision, as this topic is not entirely new. Numerous court cases like Texas v. Johnson have debated whether it is permissible to desecrate the American flag for the purpose of making a point. Based on these past cases, it is considered legal to take a stand (or a knee) in order to further your political statement.

This is also not the first time that professional athletes have made a statement involving social injustice in our country. The 1968 summer Olympics are notable for the decision by the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise their fists on the medal stand in what Smith regarded as a “human rights salute.” In 2014, NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warmups to protest the Eric Garner shooting in New York City. This highlighted the fact that professional athletes' protests can transcend making a statement that only revolves around the flag.

The United States is unique in that it legally allows demonstrations such as this, and we consider it to be commendable of the players to use their prominence to endorse a cause that they strongly believe in. However, it must be taken into consideration that using powerful symbols like the American flag to make a point will almost always have backlash. There are groups in the U.S. that are deeply invested in what the flag stands for. The full story will only be told when we separate what the flag means to people and what the players are trying to say.