In 14 NFL games that took place on Sunday, dozens of players locked arms and “took the knee” during the National Anthem, which they explain as a silent protest against police brutality directed towards black Americans. Meanwhile President Trump urged NFL owners to fire any players who take the knee, and for audience members to leave the stadium if the players do not all stand for the anthem.
“The question at hand is not whether you agree with the reason for the players’ protest, but whether or not employees have the legal right to exercise free speech,” says Rob Wilson, employment trends expert and president of Employco USA. “Should an employee be allowed to publicly express their political beliefs, no matter what? Or are employers allowed to circumscribe which behavior is deemed appropriate?”
Wilson points to the recent termination of Google employee James Damore, who was given the ax because of an email “manifesto” that became public.
“Damore offended many people with his views about women and gender equality, and he ended up being terminated as a result,” says Wilson. “For many people, this was seen as an affront to free speech. Now, this issue is coming to light again in the NFL. Should players be punished for expressing their beliefs, or are employers within their rights to demand that they stand for the anthem or face termination as a result?”
The employment trends expert argues that the NFL owners could have a case for terminating their players’ contracts if the behavior can be proved to have a negative impact on their bottom line.
“NFL ratings are down, as President Trump himself declared,” says Wilson. “If employers feel that the players’ protests is impacting their business, they will be within their rights to boot the player off the field. In fact, the contracts which players sign give owners plenty of leeway to fire them for any behavior they deem unbecoming, both on and off the field.”
In other words, says Wilson, the First Amendment cannot protect someone who has signed a contract promising to behave in accordance with their employer’s values. “For the average American, this means that your expression of free speech can come back and haunt you, whether it’s something you post on Facebook or a political discussion you have in the break room. If your employer has set forth certain points of decorum which you have agreed to, you can’t break those rules without consequence, whether you’re a server wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ pin or a lawyer making sexist jokes online.”
BRIDGET SHARKEY works with Prime Media Management, based in Chicago. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.