I’m going to throw my hat in the ring on the NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem thing. Personally, I don’t like it and, as a result, have changed my NFL viewing habits because of it. With that out of the way, and since this is an HR blog, I’m going to address how this relates to HR.
To me this is purely a workplace issue, not a free speech issue. The players are at their workplace when they are protesting. These protests are hurting their employer’s reputation and earnings as evidenced by the significant drop in attendance and drop in TV ratings week after week.
The players’ free speech isn’t constitutionally protected here. The constitution prevents the government from making a law that stops freedom of speech and the government is not preventing them from protesting. Their protests are causing the NFL direct financial harm by fans boycotting their games either by not attending and/or not watching.
I’ve never worked for an employer that would allow me to protest while I was at work and if I did, I’m 100% certain, I would be disciplined and/or no longer work there.
I’ve read some articles claiming their protests are a protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. This one from the New York Times and this one from a pro-union blog. Their arguments are compelling but I really don’t see it as the players are not protesting their working conditions nor are they engaging in political advocacy as it relates directly to their job.
From my understanding they are protesting in support of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Here is what he said when this all started:
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
“This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
“It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
His statement has nothing to do with working conditions or political advocacy that relates directly to the job of being an NFL player. I don’t see how these athletes are being oppressed. They’re living the American Dream. They get to play the greatest game on earth, get paid millions of dollars, are celebrities, and are worshiped as heroes by millions of fans.
Kaepernick’s protests are an attempt to bring attention to other people who are being oppressed. In fact he even said “This stand wasn’t for me” in this statement. Whatever you think of his statement and the reasons behind his protest, this has nothing to do with working conditions and political advocacy as it relates directly to their work in the NFL.
I think his reasons are admirable but he brought it to his workplace and decided to protest during our National Anthem and flag unfurling. This has caught on throughout the NFL and many of us don’t connect the two and find it offensive and disrespectful to our country and those who have fought to ensure and protect our freedoms, despite what they say to the contrary.
Now many fans are exercising their power by boycotting games causing the NFL to lose a lot of goodwill, reputation, and most importantly, revenue.
When an employee’s conduct directly hurts an employer’s business, as is clearly happening here, that employer has every right to take corrective action on the employee. The protesting NFL players are protesting while at the workplace and are causing a serious negative financial impact on their employer.
The NFL is, in my opinion, obligated to take the appropriate corrective action to protect their business.