Over the past couple of weeks, you’ve been either lauding or vilifying this guy who plays sportsball in the US because he opted to sit out the national anthem in protest of racism, race-based violence, and inequity. You got *really mad* at him, and said he shouldn’t be allowed to play anymore. You said he should ‘show some respect’ to the men and women who gave their lives in the line of duty so he could even have the privilege of playing sportsball for a living and of getting paid millions of dollars to do it. The men and women who put their lives on the line in duty and service to their country have said, ‘this is why we do what we do; to protect the rights and freedoms of American people’.
This is an oversimplification of a pretty nuanced series of events in the US, of course. It’s an example of someone who has ‘cachet’; someone who actually has the ability to catch the attention of the people using that ability to make a stand for something he believes in. You think Jesus was terribly popular when he hit the temples and bitched out the money-lenders there? Yes, yes, that’s different because Jesus wasn’t getting paid a million dollars to wander around in sandals and catch footballs. Okay then.
Muhammed Ali was vilified and risked being put in jail for protesting the Vietnam War. The US and sixty-some other countries boycotted the 1980 summer Olympic games (which were held in the USSR) because the USSR invaded and occupied Afghanistan and a boycott of the games was how President Jimmy Carter protested. Sticking with the Olympics, in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who placed first and second in the 200m track event raised their fists to protest racism and racial injustice.
During this year’s Olympic games, and in subsequent international marathons, Ethiopian runners raised their hands crossed above their heads to protest the Ethiopian government’s discriminatory mistreatment of the Oromo people. Other athletes have gone into hiding or have faced incarceration or physical harm because of their protests. A football player who chooses to sit or kneel during the national anthem does so precisely because their right to protest is enshrined in the American Constitution. This isn’t to say there won’t be consequences or repercussions – governments tend not to like anti-nationalist displays. But chances are good this guy won’t be put into prison indefinitely because he is moved to speak out against racism in his country.
Meanwhile in Canada, a major-league football player who was just signed to the Saskatchewan Roughriders has been told by the league that if he continues to say certain things on social media, he’ll lose his job as a player. To be sure, this player spouts pretty hateful, racist stuff – rampant antisemitism, holocaust denial, that sort of crap. This isn’t censorship because the guy is still welcome to post whatever he wants and to say whatever he wants without threat of persecution.
I know there’s a lot more to both of these stories than what I’m presenting. Is it “worse” to protest during your national anthem or to publicly say hateful things? I guess it depends on your point of view. You might find it pretty easy to support someone who wants to shed light on racism and inequality. You might find it pretty easy to agree with someone who says that Jewish people created ISIS. What I’ve found interesting about the entire spectrum that we’re seeing here is that these are, at their core, both issues of free speech.
It’s imperative that both of these fellows continue to have the right to do exactly what they’re doing – not without consequences; free speech does not mean free of consequence. If you say something offensive enough that your employer no longer wants to be associated with you, you’ve kind of made your bed and must lie in it. Yet I’m incredibly pleased that both of these athletes live in a time and a place where their words can be heard, because our respective governments enshrined that particular freedom in our constitutions.