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Barbershop: NFL's New National Anthem Policy


And now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. In the chairs for a shape up today, Kevin Blackistone - he's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. He's a frequent ESPN commentator, with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back, Kevin.


MARTIN: Also with us from member station KUOW in Seattle is Matt Calkins. He is a sports columnist for The Seattle Times. Good to have you with us.

MATT CALKINS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Chris Kluwe is a writer and a former NFL player. He is a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings. He's with us via Skype. Chris Kluwe, welcome back to you as well.

CHRIS KLUWE: Yeah. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: All right. So spoiler alert - it's obvious we're going to talk about sports, right? And we...


MARTIN: ...Think this is probably the biggest sports story of the week. It's the NFL's new policy on the national anthem that says players must stand for the anthem or stay in their locker rooms and teams have the authority to fine or penalize protesters. Well, we know at least one person who is happy with the NFL.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, and the NFL owners did the right thing, and that's what they've done.

MARTIN: That, of course, was President Trump during an interview with "Fox & Friends." Now, all of you have written or talked about this on various platforms. I know there are strong views. I'm going to start with Matt because you wrote an op-ed in The Seattle Times where you say policy or no policy, and I quote, "it is best for everyone if the anthem protests stop." How come?

CALKINS: Yeah. Well, I don't think that should be confused with these anthem protests never should have happened in the first place. I want to make that clear. When I say, I think they should stop. It's best for everyone. I think you're basically looking at four entities when I say everyone - the owners, the players, the fans and the causes the players are championing.

Obviously, we know why this is best for the owners. If it's helping the bottom line, they're happy. I think we know why it's best for the fans simply because I think a lot of them were boycotting because of the protests, and I think this might get some of them back. It also might cause some to boycott because they don't like this new policy, but I think, overall, it's going to put more eyes on the TV, and I think fans will be happy.

For the players, I think it's a couple of things. One - they lose revenue. Eventually, the next time the CBA comes up, they might not have as much money in their pay, in their wallets, in their paychecks. And I think for those who are protesting, they might not care so much, but the ones who aren't protesting are like, hey, you know, that's some of my money that's going down the drain.

And I think, for anything, the causes that these players are championing - I want to make clear that when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, I was in support of it. I think that he had to be controversial. I think he had to have some shock and awe to try to get people to listen to him. But I think somewhere along the line his message got co-opted it and turned into general racism. It turned into Donald Trump. It turned into people protesting because Kaep didn't have a job anymore, and I don't think people's minds were willing to be changed any more.

I think if you were trying to persuade someone, someone protesting wasn't going to do that in a way that, maybe, someone taken to The Players' Tribune or Doug Baldwin go to the podium could change people's mind, so I think for all those reasons it's probably best for everyone if they stop - not to say they weren't justified in the beginning.

MARTIN: OK, I think we got it. Kevin, let's go to you because I think that's a pretty good encapsulation of the criticisms that a lot of people have had of the protests. What do you say about that?

BLACKISTONE: Well, the reason for the protests has to do with police lethality against unarmed black men in this country and police brutality against black men in this country in general, and as far as I know, that hasn't stopped, and we were just reminded of that this week when Sterling Brown, a Milwaukee Bucks basketball player who double parked over some handicapped spots at 2:00 in the morning at a Walgreens in Milwaukee wound up arrested, tazed, thrown down to the ground in a confrontation with a police officer. So the problem continues.

And I think that it - I think that the players have served this issue very well because here we are four years after 2014 when Black Lives Matter really began to grow around this issue, and we're still talking about it, and people are keeping track of it. And in some regards, I think, anecdotally, if you look around the country, we have seen more court cases - not a whole lot more, but a few more - more instances where police have been either fired or disciplined for mistreatment of black males, and so that's why I think that is a - been a good protest and it needs to continue.

MARTIN: But what about the NFL policy here?

BLACKISTONE: The NFL policy is - is a joke. First of all, in 1943, the Supreme Court ruled against having to coerce people to do the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. So I think that the NFLPA - if they want to file a lawsuit against the - against the NFL for trying to stop the protesters in the league, I think that they're going to have a lot of precedent on their side.

MARTIN: Well, let me just point out that we did - the NFLPA, the NFL Players Association, issued a strongly worded statement. They say they were not consulted about this. I do want to mention we did invite them to join our conversation today. We were not successful in that, now, obviously. Let me hear from Chris, and then, Kevin, I'll come right back to you.

And Chris, I do want to point out your record, here - that you played in the NFL, as we mentioned, and you've expressed the view that your career ended because, as a straight man, you started speaking out about LGBT rights, and as a - so as a person - if you were still playing, you'd be covered by this policy, what's your response to it?

KLUWE: Yeah, no. I think that it's absolutely necessary for the players to continue protesting, both from a societal standpoint in that if we decide that we as a society value money more than basic human rights, that's really not going to lead us to a good place, and I would highly question anyone who thinks that that is good societal policy. And secondly, the fact that the players, from a business standpoint, are coming up on what is promising to be one of the most contentious CBAs in NFL history in 2020, and the players need to show solidarity, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to do so.

You know, it doesn't matter what your view is on the protests. Players right now have to show the owners that they are willing to stand together and work together because the NFL Players' Union (ph) is the weakest union in all of the major sports, and if they continue to allow themselves to be fragmented, then the owners are just going to take more and more and more.

MARTIN: Isn't that - aren't you kind of making Matt's point in a way? - that the original issue has been subsumed under other issues.

KLUWE: No, I don't think that that's making Matt's point. I think it's acknowledging the fact that life is complex and that multiple issues generally do arise and intersect each other. I mean, intersectionality is a very big thing in terms of social activism, and the fact remains that Colin Kaepernick's protest is absolutely necessary in terms of police brutality against black Americans. We have to address that first and foremost, and the thing is though - is that as the players are addressing it, they can also use that for themselves to say, look. We are - we are addressing this issue, but we are also showing the owners that, in this upcoming CBA, that we will not be driven apart. We will not be divided.

MARTIN: CBA being Collective Bargaining Agreement. But Kevin, what about this whole question of - you know, a lot of people say this is a free speech issue.


MARTIN: On the other hand, people say, well, this is that - the First Amendment speaks to the question of the government infringing upon free speech rights or controlling political speech, and this is basically an employment circumstance and that there are a lot of employers who have a lot to...


MARTIN: ...Say about the way you express themselves while you were doing the job. For example, I'm sure you and I are in the same position where we don't make contributions to political candidates...


MARTIN: ...Because of our employment.

BLACKISTONE: Right. But, you know, employees are protected by various state laws all around the country. Here in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, you are protected from your employer if he or she wanted to crack down on you because of your political activity or your political ideology, so I think there is some protection - some protection there as well for people to - for players to stand up and say something without facing retribution from their employers, and I would also say that, you know, professional sports team, particularly NFL teams, are really private-public partnerships, part - entities.

Where Matt works in Seattle - that stadium was paid for 70 percent by taxpayers. In fact, President Obama, I think - in his second term, he tried to get a proposal through to stop tax-free bonds being given to private enterprises who wanted to build stadiums. So this notion that the government has nothing to do with the NFL, which also gets - has some Fiber 1C (ph) type of status or they did in their front office is really - is really not true.

MARTIN: Well - we only have another minute left, so, Chris, I'm going to go back to you on this. You also wrote about the fact that there's a tremendous sort of patriotic imagery surrounding football that isn't unique to the sport, but is particularly pronounced in football. So I'm wondering, for you - as a former player. I know you're a writer now - what might be - might there be some acceptable compromise? I mean perhaps to - I don't know. What might be acceptable to you?

KLUWE: Having the players keep protesting - I mean, that's - that's our rights as Americans, and I think one of the - one of the things that Kevin didn't mention in terms of the First Amendment issues is that it has been very clearly linked that the reason the owners are implementing this policy is because of what President Trump has said, and he has said, if a player has protested, he should lose his job, and now, should be deported, so - (laughter) I mean...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there.

KLUWE: I don't know how you can go any...

MARTIN: It's not political.

KLUWE: ...(Unintelligible) with the First Amendment.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for that.

That's Chris Kluwe, writer, former NFL player - Kevin Blackistone, professor of journalism - Matt Calkins, sports columnist for The Seattle Times.

Thank you all so much for joining us.


CALKINS: Thank you.

KLUWE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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