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Goodell: Stand When Everyone is Watching, Protest Only When No One Is

On Tuesday NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called for all players to stand for the national anthem. "The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues," he wrote.

The corporate chieftains, the calm captains of complacency, are terrified of disruptive discourse.

But without the controversy over the anthem, what “underlying issues” would we be discussing? Likely none. The whole reason these "underlying issues"—glaringly unnamed by Mr. Goodell—are mentioned is because Colin Kaepernick and others began to kneel during the anthem. The kneelers wanted to make a statement about what many agree is a flawed system of justice. For a moment people were listening, even those who still proudly stood for the anthem. We were beginning to have a conversation. 

Beginning, that is, until the Vice President adeptly swept in and transformed the issue from a grievance against injustice into a debate about respecting the flag and the troops. Acting in accord with leftist Saul Alinksy’s Rule for Radicals, the Trump administration has turned reality on its head: Suddenly kneeling is an act of disrespect. This was a brilliant move: Now, we can forget what people we protesting and we can move on to labeling every kneeler as a troop-hater. Whew, no need to talk about those underlying issues anymore.  

The corporate chieftains, the outwardly calm captains of complacency, whether in sports, media, or Hollywood, are terrified of disruptive discussions. You best keep your thoughts to yourself. This is the same as telling religious people to keep their convictions about, say, serving the poor or anything else, within the confines of their church. You do you, as long as it’s not in the presence of anyone.  

Mr. Goodell’s letter is a glimpse into the mind of the established elite, those who long ago forgot how to have real conversations. Come on, there is money to be made, they say. Indeed, and this is a good thing, but should it trump everything? Controversies about who is trading who, whether that was a bad call, those are acceptable, because they help sell tickets and generate stories that keep people engaged in the NFL universe. Controversies about higher things, about how we live our lives together, discussions that question the foundations of our society: well, there is no room for such discourse in the enormous bowls where hundreds of thousands citizens gather every week. 

What Mr. Goodell proposes is not democratic discourse. It is owners telling their property to be quiet. It’s people with power assuming they own the rest of us. It is employers seeking to control too many aspects of those who help them make their money. It is President Trump telling a senator to resign because he doesn’t like what he says. It is the elite media telling Trump supporters in Michigan or Kansas to shut up because clearly they are dumb and have nothing to say. And it is Trump supporters refusing to listen to those who kneel.

Is this how we define freedom of speech and expression in 2017?

When I was working as protégé Roger Ailes—and I will keep harping on this because right now we are seeing the rotten fruits of his effect on our discourse—I learned what the "principles of business" meant. These principles were the polar opposite of those I learned at Notre Dame while studying under, say, Alasdair MacIntyre, the founder of virtue ethics, but as Mr. Ailes always told me there was no place for philosophical musings in that NewsCorp tower. The principles of business espoused by Ailes and others with whom I was close at NewsCorp were summed up thus: You do whatever the boss tells you, even if it means lying (and lying, such a harsh word. Let's just call it "narrative restructuring"). You check your personal conscience, a.k.a. "foibles," at the door. We just want the automaton you.

Plenty of businesses are run by women and men of integrity, who put themselves in the minds of others and who remember where they came from. Something seems to go awry, though, when the company and cause become vast and powerful. Regardless, what's important now is that we maintain the principles of integrity and democracy, whose lifeblood is give and take. What better venue to hear grievances than the public square, our grand stadiums, and what better way to fight against the hate and disregard than to protest peacefully on one side and to listen graciously on the other. 

We do no not need to move past controversy, as Mr. Goodell demands. We need to move past control that prohibits controversy. That is the only way we can, in civility, discuss the "underlying issues."

JP Lindsley is the author of the forthcoming Fake News, True Story, available for pre-orders at Inkshares. 

Joe Lindsley