Israel Folau, Colin Kaepernick and the limits of free speech on the sports field

by Paul Thomas / 12 June, 2018

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Eli Harold (58), Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline in December, 2016. Photo/Getty Images

Eli Harold (58), Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline in December, 2016. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Kaepernick Folau free speech

It seems that sports stars like Israel Folau and Colin Kaepernick are entitled to opinions only if they have more clout than the organisations they play for.

Free speech is back in the sports news. A few weeks after Australian rugby star Israel Folau was accused of abusing free speech with his tweeted assertion that gays are going to hell, American football has slapped a ban on players “taking the knee” during the pre-game national anthem as a sign of protest against racial injustice.

Despite copping it from most quarters, Folau has stuck to his guns and, thus far, escaped formal sanction (though sponsor Land Rover has asked for its car back). The official act of omission is understandable, but it hasn’t enhanced the reputation of the Kiwi boss of Rugby Australia (RA), Raelene Castle.

US President Donald Trump and the Republican Party were quick to see the “take the knee” movement, launched by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, as an opportunity to engage in the politics of division that have served them so well. At a rally in Alabama last September, Trump urged owners of National Football League (NFL) franchises, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field’”, and terminate his contract. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Mike Pence ostentatiously walked out of a Colts-49ers game in Indianapolis when some of the visitors staged a protest. (The evidence suggests the walkout was entirely premeditated.)

Trump surrogate and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed the protesters as “arrogant young millionaires engaged in a publicity stunt”. Despite the fact that he hasn’t been seen on a football field for over a year, Kaepernick features prominently in current GOP campaign advertising as a symbol of “the liberal elites who disrespect our flag”. (He has filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion to deny him a contract.)

In a sense the right-wing onslaught is working. Like most US professional sports, American football is, broadly speaking, played by blacks and watched by whites. Over the past two years, the number of white males who follow NFL “closely” has dropped from 69% to 47% and Republicans have been losing interest at twice the rate of Democrats.

Israel Folau: lost the Land Rover. Photo/Getty Images

Israel Folau: lost the Land Rover. Photo/Getty Images

So now the NFL has ruled that teams whose players and support staff fail to stand and “show respect for the flag and anthem” will be fined. The only concession is that would-be protesters are permitted to remain in the locker room during the anthem.

For some Americans this is nothing short of suppressing dissent and depriving individuals of the fundamental First-Amendment right to free expression. The fact that the NFL is seen to be acting at the behest of a President whose authoritarian instincts are more evident by the day makes it all the more troubling.

The NFL can get away with its ban because it’s a private organisation made up of 32 independent corporations with an average value of US$2.5 billion ($3.6 billion). Although it generates annual revenues of US$13 billion, the NFL is technically a non-profit organisation because it distributes profits to its members.

In addition to the favourable tax status, the 32 corporations benefit from lavish taxpayer funding because there are more cities wanting an NFL team than there are teams. According to Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, “nearly every city with an NFL franchise has been extorted into paying for stadiums, parking, access roads and the rest. Are they repaid for their generosity? Of course not: all profits go to the multibillion-dollar private corporations often owned by billionaire families.”

The athletes who take the knee are up against a powerful coalition: Trump, the Republican Party, the new right-wing populism and the plutocracy. Folau, on the other hand, is in a face-off with RA – which needs him more than he needs it – and a news-media and social-media community notorious for their short attention spans.

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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