Conservative critics like Jonah Goldberg need to cool it against the president.
In a recent National Review article regarding the NFL protest controversy, Jonah Goldberg asks, "Does America Still Believe in the Right to Be Wrong?" This question is followed by "The idea [of ideological freedom] on which free societies are based seems more endangered than ever."
In this context, one of the subjects Goldberg cites is "the current controversy over NFL players refusing to stand for the National Anthem" – not the controversy, that is, over President Trump's criticism of those protests. In other words, Goldberg sees this issue as one in which people – such as the president – are failing to recognize the NFL players' "right to be wrong." On this, Goldberg is confused.
Football is a sport. When people buy tickets to go to football games, they do so not in order to provide a forum by which wealthy football players can protest.
The NFL is not a government agency, but a private organization. With respect to its employees, it can, while they are engaged in their duties, restrict their speech.
The NFL is free to prohibit players from using the National Anthem as a forum to make a political statement. In fact, in requiring players to stand during the playing of the anthem, it has done so. But – unlike its response to players wishing make statements in other respects – it has not enforced this prohibition.
For the protesters are not only abusing their position, but abusing it to charge that America is unjust to blacks. While this is apparently inconceivable to some, it is a disputed charge. (To be clear, those who dispute it are not saying that, for blacks, life in the U.S. is easy; to claim, however, that minorities in the U.S. are unjustly treated is a very different matter.) It is an issue that divides America.
NFL owners have been content to allow players to violate NFL rules in order to make this common but actually very debatable charge. Why? Perhaps they have suddenly decided that their rule is unconstitutional. Or maybe they, too, upset over the (supposed) racial injustice of America, don't sleep at night. Or maybe they do sleep just fine at night but think their less than inspiring acquiescence to the prohibited protests will win them points with their players. Maybe so. But it will not help the country.
If the charge of racial injustice is to be made, it should, for that reason alone, be made in a forum in which it can be answered. To allow it to be made in a forum in which it cannot be answered gives it a legitimacy it has not earned. As it was, Trump was entirely right to criticize.
If the NFL team owners want to help this country, they should admit that they should have enforced their own very appropriate rule in the first place, do so in the future, and be done with it.
Bert Peterson is working on a book, tentatively titled Education for Democracy. His website is 4thofjuly.info.