NFL Players Have Seemingly Forgotten That Injustice Is a Relative Concept
The number is thankfully in decline, but as of 2010 over 2 billion of the world’s inhabitants had never flipped on a light switch. In the U.S. we understandably hurt for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Ricans who may go without electricity for months, and our compassion is magnified by the happy truth that most of us have never lived without it ourselves.
In India, nearly half of its citizens don’t have access to toilets. This is particularly difficult for the country’s women who seek secluded outdoor areas in which to relieve themselves in group fashion as a way of avoiding male assault. India is a brutally hot country in the summer months, but even the citizens of its most prosperous cities largely live without air conditioning.
While driving across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), former British Army officer Mike Martin recalled in his 2016 book Crossing the Congo having to literally beat desperate Congolese off the Land Rover he (along with his travel companions) was directing through this most collapsed of countries. Its inhabitants were doing everything possible to escape their horrid lives, and saw clinging to Martin’s car as the path to opportunity in Europe. Interesting about Europe is that spoiled Americans are known to mock its slow growth relative to American abundance, but to DRC citizens living amid the world’s worst poverty, the allegedly sclerotic continent is viewed as a paradise.
Global living standards that come nowhere close to what we enjoy in the United States, and that we perhaps take for granted, have come to mind quite a lot over the past year. Colin Kaepernick was seemingly the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem, many have since, and then in response to President Trump’s critical comments (and Tweets) about NFL players who have sat out the anthem, many more either kneeled or sat out the anthem altogether on Sunday.
Up front, this is not an essay about how all people should rise to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Nationalism is overrated, plus it arguably distracts from what truly makes the U.S. great, and also a magnet for the world’s oppressed: we’re free to do as we wish so long as we don’t bring harm to others. Peer pressure that leads to forced salutes to a flag or the singing of a song is very un-American. What’s American is to “live and let live.”
After that, my FreedomWorks colleague Jason Pye reminds me that in the U.S., “people don’t have to like you.” Trump thinks many NFL players are half-wits for sitting out the national anthem, while many NFL players think Trump worthless for lecturing them about patriotism, all the while attacking their source of employment. Both sides are offended, including the President of the United States on one side, and that’s a happy comment on just how free we Americans are.
Let what is obvious be said: there’s no right against offense in the United States. So long as others aren’t infringing on our property rights, they can do what they want. This individual freedom is what makes the U.S. great. That we’re free is the surest sign that we’re going to be offended at times. Good. Bothersome as it may be for some to see NFL players kneeling for the national anthem, one price of freedom is that people will at times express it in ways we don’t like.
I personally think what the NFL players are doing is ridiculous, but perhaps not for the reasons some might assume. If they want to kneel during the national anthem, they once again should be free to do so, or free to do so if the person signing their paychecks signs off on it. Freedom in the U.S. decidedly does not mean freedom to do that which offends the boss. In that sense, there’s a major economic aspect to freedom: NFL players can kneel, but they can also suffer declining fan interest for kneeling. Better yet, they can certainly be fired for kneeling. Owners and bosses are free to terminate the employees who offend them inside the workplace that they own or oversee. Freedom does not include messing with someone else’s property, hence the right to fire.
Regarding what’s bothersome, NFL players and coaches have been known over the years to bemoan the know-nothings criticizing how they play and coach. They have a point, and a good one at that. Football is an incredibly athletic and cerebral game, the number of people who can play football on the NFL level is microscopic, so who do the fans think they are when they presume to criticize a game they can’t possibly understand? So true, but at the same time it’s worth asking why NFL players (along with movie/television stars) think they have anything useful to say about politics. If most know little to nothing about what NFL players do, can’t the same be said about NFL players and public policy?
Along these lines, Pye tells me that he watches sports to avoid politics. Amen. Football and other sports are a refuge from politics for many. So while it’s possible that Colin Kaepernick is well versed on subjects like wealth inequality, taxation, and policing, odds are he’s talking about things he doesn’t understand much as few on this earth (including non-quarterbacks in the NFL) understand even a fraction of what he knows about the game of football. Kaepernick and other NFL quarterbacks know in split second fashion the world’s most difficult position; athletically and mentally. We watch them out of appreciation for their genius at their given profession, not to learn public policy. I’m bothered by NFL players entering the national political discussion for the same reason callers into sport shows annoy me: in each instance I have to listen to people who generally don’t know what they’re talking about.
What bothers me even more concerns what began this piece: in the U.S. we live better than most of the rest of the world, by far. This is true even for America’s poor. As for America’s top earners, their living standards are staggering. So while NFL players have endured a great deal to make it to the NFL, the facts are that they’re in the NFL; easily earning at the 1 percent level. NFL players are a living reminder of the immense economic rewards that accrue to Americans with the discipline and drive necessary to make it to the top of professions enriched by intense fan interest.
And it’s not just the pay in the NFL. As anyone who follows college football knows well, before reaching the professional game college football players at the top schools are pampered to a degree that would impress the richest of rich kids. Their dormitories, their exercise facilities, the hotels they stay in when they travel to away games, not to mention how they travel (Showtime’s A Season With Notre Dame Football revealed that the Fighting Irish fly to games in a chartered 747….) is often on another level. This pampering occurs in concert with enormously rich and accomplished donors doing everything possible to curry favor with them during their time on campus, and also after. College players who don’t make it to the NFL have access to rich alums and jobs that would once again impress the richest of rich kids.
Importantly, none of what’s been said is meant to ignore what NFL players went through to make it there in the first place, not to mention what some went through as children. Many come from very difficult circumstances. What’s been said is also not meant to excuse a ridiculous drug war that, while not racist as a policy, has proven racist in a numerical sense. It’s also not meant to excuse the excesses of police. Just as politicians regularly overstep in obnoxious, life-sapping ways, it’s not a reach to suggest that police err too; sometimes in brutal fashion. Still, relative to the suffering in the rest of the world, what we go through reads to the rest of the world as pretty cushy.
The protests of NFL players are ultimately bothersome because they read as the rants of the spoiled. While professional football players should be just as free as the man on the street to sit for the national anthem, and talk politics more broadly, complaints about life in America from individuals who embody the immese possibility for Americans with drive and talent is just too much. In their laments about American injustice they forget what a relative concept it is stateside. Indeed, victims of injustice in other parts of the world would give anything to experience the American version (whether it's visited on the poor, middle class or well-to-do) that has the rich, accomplished and largely sheltered from true injustice so up in arms. But the main thing is that people fortunate enough to be paid exceedingly well to express their remarkable talents and minds on national television seemingly have no basis for being angry about a country in which they can do just that.