KEVIN LEININGER: If sports is going to be a political football, free speech can’t take sides

A lot of people hope the New England Patriots don't win the Super Bowl. But is it because some of them have taken a knee during the National Anthem? Or because they're so good it just isn't fair? (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

World Wrestling Entertainment leader Vince McMahon’s promised rebirth of the XFL in 2020 will probably be as big a joke as it was on 2001, when the league folded after a single season. But the announcement of a rival football league a week before the Super Bowl illustrates yet again why the prospect of a sixth championship for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the least of the NFL’s worries.

The National Football League, once the undisputed and unassailable king of American professional sports, has become a victim of its own excess. The spectacle of millionaire players protesting the country that made them rich has led to lower TV ratings, calls for an end to taxpayer-subsidized stadiums and, in Indiana, a bill that would require the Colts to refund fans for the cost of their ticket should players take a knee during the national anthem. It might all seem more than a little silly and petty, had the NFL not just undermined its own free-speech defense in a way McMahon and probably others will be only too willing to exploit.

Just this week, the same league that has allowed players to protest on company time denied the American Veterans (AMVETS) space in the official Super Bowl program for an ad containing just two words: “Please Stand.” In a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, AMVETS National Commander Marion Polk wrote that “freedom of speech works both ways. We respect the rights of those who choose to protest, as these rights are precisely what our members have fought — and in many cases died — for. But imposing corporate censorship to deny that same right to those veterans who have secured it for us all is reprehensible and totally beyond the pale.”

To be clear: The NFL has every right to control the content of its own publication. But it has no less a right to control the on-field actions of its players. This debate is not about the NFL allowing or infringing free speech; it is about the NFL taking sides in a way that is sure to alienate many if not most of the very people responsible for its past success.

As if to drive home that point, Goodell promised to increase the league’s spending on “social justice” programs just a day after rejecting the AMVETS ad, which had previously been accepted by the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association. Hoping to quell the protests, the NFL in November announced it would spend $89 million to promote social and racial equality, but is bribing players to stand really less objectionable than politely asking them to do so?

McMahon, a champion showman, knows an opportunity when he sees one. When he announced the rebirth of an eight-team XFL Thursday, he made it clear players would stand for the national anthem and promised the league would have nothing to do with politics.

“We’re here to play football,” he said.

It was all too much for ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, who only a few months ago was accusing Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones of a “plantation mentality” for demanding players stand for the anthem. This week Wilbon dismissed the new league — which will not accept players with criminal records — as a “whitewashed, idealistic brand” of football.

People may not be clamoring for a new and substandard brand of football, but what’s wrong with a little healthy idealism? Remember when you could watch sports to get away from the political nonsense? Don’t you wish you still could?

Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan America, even the non-political will generate partisanship. When the Philadelphia Eagles qualified as the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent by drubbing the Minnesota Vikings last week, fans partied in the streets and, as so often happens, some were a little over-exuberant.

A columnist for Philadelphia Magazine thought it was all a bit much — but not because civil order and private property suffered as a result.

“This level of accepted misconduct isn’t a unique Eagles fan phenomenon,” wrote Ernest Owens. “It’s an acceptance of white privilege . . . Ask yourself whether the city would have embraced a crowd of black men the same way if the Sixers had made it to the NBA finals.”

With $89 million to spend, perhaps the NFL can answer that question — if anybody will stand for it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.