Kaepernick and free expression

San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick won’t stand for the national anthem, because, well, we’re not exactly sure why. Sorry, but if you’re going to wear a shirt praising Fidel Castro and then protest the lack of “freedom, liberty and justice for all” in America, then thinking people have no cause to take your arguments seriously. The hypocritical reaction to his protest, though, is another story.

The 49ers team says it recognizes “the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” Good. There’s no reason a franchise should inhibit Kaepernick from protesting perceived injustices. When Americans clamor to get people fired for taking unpopular political positions, they contribute to an environment that chills speech (though it looks like Kaepernick may lose his job simply for being bad at it, but that’s another story).

I remember defending Helen Thomas, a vile anti-Semite who also happened to be the doyenne of the Washington D.C. chattering class, for this very reason. If free people have fainting spells every time off-putting rhetoric wafts toward their ears, soon enough organizations that work to stifle speech – ThinkProgress and the like – will be dictating what acceptable discourse looks like. Then, even innocuous thoughts that fail to adhere to a certain worldview will be considered off-limits.

Then again, sometimes I wonder if people who defend the likes of Kaepernick on free-speech grounds understand that private organizations have a right to fire people who embarrass them or hurt their franchise. While Kaepernick has a right to tell us what’s on his mind, he has no inherent right to be backup QB making over $100 million in the NFL. This was not readily apparent to anyone paying attention to the media coverage this past week. As I scanned ESPN and cable news, I heard a lot about how Kaepernick was merely “starting a conversation” – because God knows no one ever discusses race issues in this country anymore! – or how he should be commended for “standing up” for his principles.

You know, I don’t remember comparable apprehension from these modern-day Voltaires when the National Basketball Association moved next year’s All-Star Game from Charlotte, N.C., because North Carolinians stood on their principles and decided they wanted to continue to have sex-specific bathrooms in their schools. The move was roundly celebrated. If you like what Kaepernick has to say, embrace it. Stop pretending you care about open discourse.

I certainly don’t remember many of these sports journalists defending the integrity of free expression and principle when Curt Schilling was fired by ESPN for sharing some dumb post on Facebook. ESPN is entitled to decide what political messages its employees convey on its network, or even outside of it. Liberals didn’t seem troubled about Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of Mozilla after being under fire, not even for being an open apostate on gay rights, but for donating money to a state initiative years before. And I don’t recall that too many people were worried about free expression when the owners of an Indiana pizza shop were hounded from their business by angry progressives for having offered a blasphemous answer to a hypothetical question about same-sex marriage.

Let’s also remember that the sanctity of free speech was not a big topic when cheering on the economic protests against Chick-fil-A (the CEO is a fan of traditional marriage – get him!) or Hobby Lobby (it was involved in a lawsuit defending the other part of the First Amendment). Nor should the ability to speak out be debated. Both sides are entitled to free expression.

It’s true that athletes have an outsized influence in the media. But even the wealthiest among us shouldn’t be inhibited from having a say, right? After watching liberals at the Democratic National Convention cheer for laws allowing the banning of political books and movies and demand the overturning of Citizens United, it’s nice to see some renewed passion regarding the First Amendment. After watching progressive mobs go after Americans who support traditional marriage, maybe we’re going to see more compassion regarding opposing viewpoints. Maybe professional sports leagues and sports networks will stop injecting themselves into political and social debates and allow all people to have a say.

Or, more likely, it will always depend on the topic.