NFL’s defense of free speech can’t be a short-term thing

Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times columnist, recently lamented in a speech the shortcomings of civics education in the United States.

“Younger Americans seem to have no grasp of what our First Amendment says, much less the kind of speech it protects,’’ Stephens said.

The NFL stepped into the void this past weekend with a civics lesson on free speech with its protests during the national anthem about racial inequality and police violence against African-Americans.

The protests ramped up after Donald Trump criticized the protests, and many Americans agreed with Trump even though America was founded on dissent and sprotesting is part of our way of life.

Critics say protests during the national anthem are not American, but they are very American. The players aren’t showing disrespect, but respect for American ideals.

Many probably don’t even know that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it’s legal to burn the flag. That helps make America a great country.

The late conservative justice Antonin Scalia provided a key vote in that 5-4 decision allowing the burning of the flag and later explained the rational for it.

“If I were king, I would not allow people to go around burning the American flag,’’ he said. “However, we have a first amendment, which says the right to speech shall not be abridged and it is addressed in particular to speech critical of the government that was the kind of speech that tyrants would want to suppress.’’

The NFL players gave the nation a lesson that free speech isn’t just about speech you like.

And while the owners were late to the party, many – even some who gave Trump $1 million for his inauguration festivities – joined in.

Even on Tuesday, Trump was still calling for a rule that players can’t kneel during the national anthem. Somebody needs to read Trump Justice Scalia’s free-speech comments.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was concerned about having 60 percent of the country “mad at you,’’ climbed on board.

Jones tried to have it both ways  — kneeling with the players before the anthem and then standing up for the anthem.

The difference will be lost on most people who saw the picture of Jones being the only owner to kneel. It’s a picture that speaks a thousand words.

Singer John Legend said: “Protest is patriotic. If we quell protests in the name of patriotism, we are not patriots. We are tyrants.”

Former GOP operative Steve Schmidt said the men buried at Arlington National Cemetery died for “freedom of speech, of expression.”

He called what Trump is doing “terrible” and “tragic.”

And if Trump thought the fans would boycott the NFL, he was mistaken. Ratings were up three percent overall and a whopping 63 percent for the Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals game, although it was not a good comparison because the third week MNF game last year went against a presidential debate.

The irony of all this is that former Colin Kaepernick teammate Eric Reid, who knelt with him last year, noted in the New York Times that Kaepernick started his protest by sitting. After the two men talked with each other and retired Green Beret Nate Boyer, they decided kneeling would show more respect, kind of like having the flag at half-staff.

Now taking a knee is becoming a sign of protest in our culture. Bill Russell, still an activist after all these years, knelt with his Presidential Medal of Freedom. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson knelt in Congress. The Georgetown University law school faculty took a knee to protest a Tuesday appearance by Jeff Sessions.

And years from now, the protests will be seen in a different light than they are now. Protests are always more popular looking back than they are at the time the protests are taking place.

Looking back, the protests will be remembered not for a flag controversy, but for the players endorsing racial justice.

Of course, there is still much work to be done, starting with a team signing Kaepernick. It is a disgrace he’s still unemployed.

They also have to decide where to go from here with the protests. Remember the protests were losing steam before Trump put them on the front burner. The players need to keep speaking out on the issue to make sure they aren’t viewed as protests against Trump.

Another suggestion would be to have the NFL run public service announcements during its games explaining free speech to all those fans that missed having a good civics class.

The NFL owners and players gave the nation a seminar on free speech this weekend. It needs to continue.

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