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How a game became a forum for protest PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 16:59

Millions of words about the game-day protests by National Football League players have been written, printed, posted, spoken and tweeted since last weekend, but it is unlikely that any have been more heartfelt, moving and, for those who agree with their sentiment, more compelling than those of Ozaukee Press reader David Shaw of Belgium in his letter published on this page.
    The letter to the editor includes the text of a letter Mr. Shaw sent to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell criticizing his failure to take action against players who make gestures of protest during the singing of the national anthem.
    The letter begins, “Dear Mr. Goodell: Enclosed are a few pictures of my son. He was a Marine combat veteran. He deeply loved America. He never complained about his injuries. He killed himself Nov. 13, 2015. Unlike your pampered celebrity millionaire athletes, he never cried about how unjust the world is. You have allowed the blatant disrespect for our national anthem by your players.”
    Not only heartfelt by the writer, the words surely go straight to the hearts of readers. In writing them, and in having them published in a newspaper protected by freedom of the press, Mr. Shaw exercised free speech rights that are guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment, including his right to, as referred to in his letter, boycott NFL games as a form of protest.
    Empathy is the right response to the letter, but so too is an understanding that the Americans who play football for the NFL have the same rights as Mr. Shaw.     
    Mr. Shaw’s letter was written before President Trump attacked players in a speech Friday and in a barrage of tweeted screeds that followed it. Before Trump barged in, player demonstrations—kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem—were limited mainly to a few African American players drawing attention to racial grievances. But on Sunday, hundreds of players protested, in one case an entire team.
    These protests were more than a show of solidarity with black players. They were a rebuke of a president who showed his contempt for free speech by calling any player who protests during the national anthem “a son of a bitch” and telling team owners to fire protesters.
    What was perhaps most remarkable about the response was that many of the NFL owners Trump tried to goad into firing protesters defended the players and criticized the president. Even New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a one-time Trump supporter who was reported to have donated $1 million to his inauguration, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s comments and defended his players’ rights to “peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner they feel is most important.”
    Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy rapped Trump for “using his immense platform to make divisive and offensive statements about our players” and voiced support for “any of our players who choose to peacefully express themselves with the hope of change for good.” And then he reminded the president: “As Americans, we are fortunate to be able to speak openly and freely.”
    Fans are divided and many no doubt share the sentiments expressed by Mr. Shaw. It’s a fair assumption, however, that most of them would wish that they could enjoy just watching a football game without the distraction of politics.
    It’s a nice thought, but that ship sailed a long time ago. Football games have been formed into something resembling patriotic exercises. Players are called warriors. Military metaphors are used to describe their efforts to lay waste to opponents. Some NFL games feature fly-overs by military aircraft during the singing of the anthem. Once upon a time at Green Bay Packers games, during another period of civil unrest, this one over the Vietnam War and racial inequality, players and fans were expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The result is that football games have become an apt forum for protest.
    NFL football has been inflated into many things, but at its most basic it is nothing more than an amusement and its players are the highly paid entertainers who provide it. They are, precisely as David Shaw wrote, “pampered millionaire celebrity athletes.” But they are also Americans who do not forfeit their freedom of speech when they put on cleats and shoulder pads to perform for their audience.

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