Who would have thought the National Football League – those teams with big guys who chase a little ball all over the gridiron – would get caught up in a fight over the First Amendment's free-speech protections?
But it has, in an explosive way.
With the one-sided display over the weekend demonstrating that some speech is praiseworthy, laudable and to be honored. While, in contradiction to the First Amendment, other speech is not.
Specifically, speech that disrespects the U.S. flag or the national anthem is supported, while statements honoring the flag are not.
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It all started a year ago with now-sidelined quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason game. He explained in the wake of high-profile police shootings, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
Kaepernick has remained unsigned through the 2017 season, but his campaign lives on, with some 200 NFL players Sunday following his lead, mostly in response to criticism by President Trump. Some kneeled for the anthem, some stayed in the locker room and a few raised fists.
USA Today reported Monday the NFL has decided that players from the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers would not be punished for violating a league rule that requires players to be present on the sidelines during the playing of the national anthem.
League spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed, "There will be no discipline handed down this week for anyone who was not there."
He said the "real effort here is to make progress in the community on issues of inequality, and to not get distracted by political attacks or things that don't help us make progress."
The NFL's operations manual, which, unlike its rule book, is not available to the public, states:
"During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses."
The NFL declined to respond to multiple WND inquiries on the issue.
Grabien.com noted that while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "infamously waged a years-long, multi-million-dollar battle with the New England Patriots trying to prove that the balls used in the 2014 AFC championship between the Pats and the Indianapolis Colts were under-inflated," he's taking a "decidedly less fastidious approach to the rules governing the national anthem."
Instead of applying the rules, the report said, "Goodell is focusing his anger at President Trump, who said in a speech Friday that the NFL team owners should require their players to stand during the anthem."
The report noted that a year ago, the league prevented the Dallas Cowboys from wearing a decal on their helmets honoring the five police officers killed by a black man who said he had set out to kill as many white officers as he could.
And the league stopped Titans linebacker Avery Williamson from honoring 9/11 victims by wearing cleats that read "9-11/01" and "Never Forget."
The NFL fined Robert Griffin III $10,000 for wearing a shirt during a press conference that said "Operation Patience." The shirt was made by Reebok and the league contract is with Nike.
Griffin also ran into trouble wearing a shirt that said "Know Jesus, Know Peace," the report said.
The NFL has banned players from wearing Beats headphones on the field, which would violate the league's deal with Bose.
'Respectful of our football team'
Demonstrations supporting the national anthem were not equally respected by the NFL. The Free Beacon reported Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wanted his entire team to stage a protest.
Tomlin was upset when offensive tackle – and former Army Ranger – Alejandro Villanueva, exited the locker room and stood alone on the Steelers' sideline to pay tribute to his country. The veteran was awarded a Bronze Star and served three tours in Afghanistan.
Tomlin said: "Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation, we were gonna be respectful of our football team."
Nationally syndicated talk-radio host Mark Levin previously fumed over the NFL's censorship of the Dallas team's initiative to honor fallen police officers.
"Let me tell you why the NFL won't do this. Anyone have a guess? I have a big guess: Because they don't want any trouble from the leftists, from the Black Lives Matter crowd. I know exactly what's going on here. Like Hillary Clinton doesn't seek the endorsement from the cops union. Of course not. The Democrat Party's gone. And the NFL top brass, like the NBA top brass, like baseball top brass, all liberal Democrats," he said at the time
WND reported when an NFL player posted an image on Instagram of a man in black slitting a police officer's throat.
Under an image showing blood spilling from the officer's neck, Cleveland Browns player Isaiah Crowell wrote, "Mood: They give polices [sic] all types of weapons and they continuously choose to kill us ... #Weak."
WCBS-TV noted that the man in black resembled ISIS terrorist Jihadi John, who is known for appearing in videos in which he is shown beheading American and British victims. According to Cleveland.com, Crowell posted the image after Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were shot and killed by police officers.
The Browns said the comments were "disturbing and unacceptable."
Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said Monday that for the first time in 45 years, he made "an active decision not to watch" NFL games on Sunday, including his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It was not a decision made in anger. It was genuine sadness," he said. "I realized that I can no longer look at this game and watch this game and study this game and pretend, you know, fantasize, everything a fan does. This whole thing has removed for me the ingredients that are in the recipe that make up a fan.
"The mystique is gone. That actually started vanishing a while ago. The larger-than-life aspect of it is gone. The belief, the wish, the desire that the people in the game were the best and brightest and special, and that's why they were there, that's gone. And it’s been politicized. It has been politicized and corrupted, and it didn't start this weekend. It started years ago. And if I wanted to, I could go back and get the transcripts from a few years ago on this program where I first sensed that this was happening and was going to happen."
He warned that such politically charged demonstrations are not going to make the NFL more popular.
"You just cannot have a business as large as the National Football League – which is as dependent on public dollars as it is. You simply cannot have a business that allows itself to be used to promote 'social justice' when that promotion of social justice requires displays of anti-Americanism, however you want to define it," he said.
"There is no way that business is going to grow and prosper. No matter how correct the protest might be, no matter how justified it might be, that is not the place for it. It is not why people spend money watching it, patronizing it, purchasing anything to do with it. And that makes me sad. I don't want the NFL to go away. I don't want the NFL to become less than what it was. But it already is. You can't watch the NFL anymore and just watch football."
The financial impact already has been seen. CBS in Denver reported the Phil Long dealership asked CBS4 and other stations to stop airing their ads with Broncos linebacker Von Miller, shortly after he took part in the protest.
A spokesman said in the report Miller "has not been fired, but instead they are changing some advertising."
And according to Cleveland.com, ratings for NBC's broadcast of "Sunday Night Football" were down again.
The game between the Raiders and Redskins pulled in a 11.6 overnight rating. That number represents the low mark for the telecast during the three-week-old season and is down 9 percent over last week and 11 percent from last year, the report said.
Even before Sunday, there were reports of a decline in viewership and attendance.
Tickets for the most recent Thursday night game were available on secondary markets for just $14, about the price of a beer and hot dog inside the stadium.
Twitter posts pointed out the nearly empty stadium only a few minutes before the game, facetiously stating "sellout looks imminent."
— Kent Porter (@kentphotos) September 22, 2017
The previous weekend the Los Angeles Rams drew 56,612 and the Los Angeles Chargers 25,381. The combined total was less than the USC-Texas college game the day before, 84,714.