The five St. Louis Rams who entered their NFL game last week with their hands up aren’t going to be disciplined by the league, for reasons that have nothing to do with the appropriateness of their conduct. The NFL is up to its faceguards in bad public relations already, and understandably wants to avoid wading into the Ferguson quagmire and being perceived to be taking sides, a move with no up-sides at all. Sportswriter Sally Jenkins also took issue with the St. Louis police demanding that the players be punished, in an emotional statement that seemed to threaten vague consequences if they were not. She was right to point out that government entities may not use threats of non-performance of their duties to members of the public in order to control their speech, like, say, the Federal government is doing now to try to force Dan Snyder to change the name of his Washington, D.C. NFL team.
Jenkins’ conclusion, however, was an ethics mess:
“Five members of the St. Louis Rams made an edgy gesture on Sunday, and you may not agree with them. But they merely joined a long tradition of athletes using their celebrity for symbolic public protest, and the NFL was right to reject the call to punish them. Punish them for what, after all? For showing an alertness and sensitivity to current events in their community, and holding an opinion on them?”
1. The “long tradition” argument is “everybody does it,” and nothing better. Professional athletes are paid to play games and entertain. Few of them have any qualifications or expertise that elevate the value of their opinions on public policy and politics above that of the regulate citizens watching them, and it is an abuse of their position and an exploitation of the venue for any athlete to exploit both to make a personal statement. Earlier, Jenkins says that to punish the Rams players “would also smack of 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games for their black-gloved salutes,” as if that’s an argument. Smith and Carlos should have been expelled. The Olympics wasn’t theirs to co-opt for national political statements, no matter how valid or worthy. The Rmas players can hold opinions, and nobody is saying otherwise. Once they are in uniform and on the field, however, their opinions are not for display. They don’t own the forum.
2. People go to entertainment to be entertained, not to be bombarded by the same controversies thy paid significant sums to escape for a while. I have written in the past about singers lecturing captive audiences about current events, and the same applies to the Rams: the conduct is unfair, disrespectful and dishonest—a bait and switch.
3. The players embarrassed their employers, the Rams, and placed the team in a public relations dilemma. Any employee of any company would risk punishment by doing the same.
4. I heard one of the players involved say that they weren’t intending any disrespect to the police, but were making “a statement.” What statement do they think “Hands up!” means? As I interpret the gesture, it means
- Darren Wilson executed Michael Brown.
- Police routinely kill young black men for no reason, except their race.
- The players are accusing a local police officer of murder and local authorities of letting him get away with it.
No, nothing disrespectful to the police in that…
The Rams protest was wrong, on the facts and in the circumstances under which it occurred.