By Ken Reed
In the opening two paragraphs of his op-ed piece in the Hollywood Reporter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nailed the current Colin Kaepernick situation.
The swirling turmoil around whether or not NFL teams are reluctant to sign Colin Kaepernick because of his outspoken politics reminds me of a restaurant near my home called The Quiet Woman, which features a headless woman. The name, common among English pubs, honors a 15th-century literary character who had her head cut off because of her religious beliefs. This preference, mostly in the NFL, for “headless” athletes who remain quiet about politics during one of the most tumultuous times in American history is a throwback to an era when athletes were expected to “shut up and stick to sports.”
Those days should be gone. This ’50s-style, Father Knows Best paternalism does a disservice to players by hindering their First Amendment rights to join political discourse, but it also does a disservice to America by preventing the public from hearing all sides of political and social issues.
Anyone who’s being honest with themselves will admit that Colin Kaepernick is more talented, skilled and experienced than a couple dozen or so quarterbacks currently on NFL rosters. The problem — in the conservative eyes of NFL owners and administrators — is that Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem as a call for more social justice in America. That made some NFL fans angry, so NFL bigwigs have taken a hands-off approach to Kaepernick, a free agent quarterback who a few years ago — as an NFL neophyte — came within minutes of leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl title. The NFL boycott of Kaepernick is not about age, Kaepernick is now in his prime age-wise. It’s not about talent, last year he threw for 296 yards and rushed for 113 yards in a single game for the woeful 49ers. It’s clearly about his socio-political views.
That said, while Kaepernick is very talented, he also has flaws. Tom Brady he isn’t. But he is better than a lot of quarterbacks cashing NFL checks these days.
Make no mistake about it, this is a First Amendment issue, which means it’s an issue at the core of what being an American is all about.
At one time, the Voltaire-attributed quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was an extremely popular declaration of American patriotism. Today, however, the number of Americans who take that quote to heart seems to be dwindling — on both sides of the political spectrum. In particular, in the tightly controlled world of the NFL, the number of people willing to stand up for that First Amendment principle appears to be minuscule.
Unfortunately, the declaration that appears to be in favor when it comes to NFL players’ First Amendment rights is, “Shut up and play!”
The First Amendment, more than anything else in the Bill of Rights, or Constitution as a whole, is the primary principle that makes us Americans and differentiates us from numerous other countries around the world. Freedom of speech is synonymous with being American. It’s what thousands of service men and women have fought for through the years.
You don’t have to like what every American says, but as an American you should defend their right to say it.
As such, anyone looking to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL because of his socio-political views is simply Un-American. There’s really no other way to look at it.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Ken Reed's Author Page on Amazon
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.