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Ken Reed“Being rich doesn’t mean you’re smart, honest or fair. It just means you’re rich.”

That’s how John Feinstein ended his column about how former San Francisco 49er Eric Reid is getting punished by rich National Football League owners – in the same way former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is – for kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem.

Reid, a free agent, has started at safety for the 49ers the past five seasons. He’s healthy and in his prime at age 26. There’s clearly no reason why he hasn’t been signed by an NFL team other than the fact he kneeled during the anthem last season.

Feinstein’s concluding sentence gets to the root of the problem in the NFL: revenue-at-all-costs rules. NFL owners don’t really give a damn about patriotism or, if they do, it’s well below worshipping the God of Greed on their list of values. Money is all that matters to them. If they feel players kneeling during the anthem is bad public relations, resulting in decreases in stadium attendance and TV ratings, then they’re against kneeling. On the other hand, if they felt there was huge public sentiment from their key stakeholders in favour of players being allowed to quietly protest during the anthem, they would be totally fine with players kneeling.

NFL owners’ positions on issues of the day are solely driven by what’s best for their wallets, nothing else, including any sense of patriotism.

Do you think I’m overstating that? Then how do you explain the NFL’s phoney soldier salute? From 2011 to 2014, the Department of Defense paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million for promotional salutes to military personnel. An example is the New York Jets’ Hometown Heroes promotion. During timeouts, the Jumbotron camera would zoom in on a U.S. soldier. The soldier smiled and waved to the crowd. Fans stood and cheered, bursting with patriotism and happy that their favourite football team was honouring true American heroes. In reality, the whole thing was a marketing scam, just another revenue stream for NFL owners, not a feel-good gesture. Sad.

Back to the anthem debate. Owners, as heads of a private organization known as the National Football League, may very well have the legal right to force players to stand at attention during the national anthem. But does forced patriotism – their definition of patriotism, anyway; I believe peaceful social protests are a patriotic act – really reflect the freedom America was built on? Denying one’s freedom to quietly make a statement during the national anthem is something a Third World dictator would do. Or something President Donald Trump, a dictator wannabe, would do.

Trump reacted to players kneeling during the anthem by expressing how he thought it should be handled: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” Nice and very presidential, Donald.

At any rate, there’s a bigger issue here than whether owners can legally force players to stand for the anthem: Is it an American thing to do?

I turn to David French, a conservative writer for the conservative publication National Reviewfor wisdom on this topic. French, who also is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, writes, “Standing for the national anthem is meaningless if it’s mandated, and such a mandate undermines the essential liberty of free speech. … Private corporations should think twice before using their own economic and cultural power to enforce conformity, even if they are legally empowered to censor their employees. Again, the cure for bad speech is better speech, and free speech cannot flourish in the midst of a culture of censorship.”

French completely disagrees with Trump’s approach to the issue. He believes forcing citizens to stand for the anthem is a losing proposition.

“I want the president to stop demanding that private corporations punish speech he doesn’t like,” writes French. “If football players – or any American – stand for the flag and the anthem, I want them to do so because of their love for this nation, its people, and its ideals, not because they fear the consequences of dissent. Seek to impose your will, and more men will kneel (if they’re permitted), and when they rise, it will be with resentment in their hearts.”

Finally, I couldn’t agree more with French when he writes, “[I]f I believe a person is wrong, I seek to persuade them to change course – not mandate that they conform their speech or behaviour to my demands.”

Exactly. The American Way is about establishing and protecting a free marketplace of ideas. May the best ideas ultimately prevail.

As Feinstein points out, NFL owners are rich, not necessarily smart. Mandating players to stand at attention during the playing of the national anthem isn’t patriotic. It’s stupid.

And it undermines the spirit of freedom that is the very foundation of the United States of America.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project.  He is the author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports and How We Can Save Sports.

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