The national controversy surrounding NFL protests took a dramatic turn on Monday when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones issued a statement indicating that he will bench any player who refuses to stand during the national anthem. “If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said. “Understand? We will not… If we are disrespecting the flag, then we will not play. Period.”
ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, a black woman, responded by tweeting about how disgruntled fans can effectively boycott Jones. “This play always works,” Hill tweeted. “Change happens when advertisers are impacted. If you feel strongly about JJ’s statement, boycott his advertisers,” she concluded.
Hill was subsequently suspended for two weeks on Oct. 9, 2017. ESPN cited “a second violation of our social media guidelines” as a rationalization for the suspension. “In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences,” the network said in a statement.
The Culture of Offense
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s recent threat to bench non-compliant team members, coupled with ESPN’s suspension of Jemele Hill, illustrates why I oppose what I call the “culture of offense.”
The culture of offense normalizes and encourages employer-based punishment for offensive but non-violent comments or political gestures.
Since what may be considered offensive varies on one’s perception and offense is perceived differently by individuals across the socio-political and ideological spectrum, punishing these football players creates a slippery slope that threatens the rest of us to freely express ourselves without the looming threat of consequence.
The First Amendment and the Workplace
The right to free speech is not entirely protected at the workplace. “An employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. In other words: to keep your job, you often can’t say or do what you like.
This is in part due to an absence of protections at the state and federal levels regarding speech-related terminations. “At the protective end of the spectrum, five states (California, Colorado, Montana, New York, and North Dakota) prohibit employers from punishing employees for legal off-duty activities that do not conflict with the employer’s business-related interests,” according to the American Bar Association.
“These limited protections for off-duty political speech are not available to approximately half of the U.S. population… Accordingly, the majority of Americans only have legal protections for their speech only when it relates to a narrow category of topics protected by federal, state or local law.”
And yet, increased state or federal protections are unlikely to reduce the threat of workplace suspension or termination as it relates to politically motivated speech or actions, precisely because said speech or actions impact “business-related interests.”
This is particularly true during this deeply divided period in American political history. As such, employers are increasingly at risk of losing profit when their employees make on-the-job political statements or issue remarks that offend a target customer. This would explain the rationale that Jones used to explain his no-kneeling policy. “Too many of the fans of the Dallas Cowboys perceive this as disrespect for the flag,” he noted. “And so I don’t want our team doing it.”
The Solution: A Shift in American Values
The solution to the challenge I have presented is not a shift in policy or an increase in regulatory protections. The solution is a cultural shift from offense to toleration.
Far too often, people are quick to take offense when presented with ideas that do not align with theirs. In many instances, the offense becomes a rallying call for punitive action. This has become increasingly apparent as a result of the NFL protests, during which 47% of Republicans agreed that NFL players should be fired or suspended when caught kneeling during the national anthem.
As the Republican response to the NFL protests demonstrates, the culture of offense has normalized and encouraged employer-based punishment for non-violent comments and political gestures. NFL owners, broadly, and Jerry Jones, specifically, have cited “business-related interests,” which translates to nothing more than offended consumers, as the key motivator driving the decision to reprimand players who kneel during the anthem.
The onus is on us—ordinary citizens and consumers—to renounce the culture of offense and to promote toleration, civil debate, and the free exchange of ideas. Although it is OK to respectfully disagree with others, encouraging employers to retaliate whenever one is offended puts us all, regardless of race, ideological orientation, or political affiliation, at risk of being punished by our employers for making comments or political gestures that others might disagree with.