Think the NFL Is All About Free Speech and Freedom of Expression? Guess Again

League may be too afraid to stop players from kneeling for the national anthem, but it's come down hard on other public statements

When it comes to national anthem protests in the NFL, one common argument against a rule mandating that players stand and show respect for the American flag is that such a rule would be suppressing the free speech rights of the athletes.

Not only is the case for this not that strong because absolute free speech can be thwarted in the workplace, but also because the league itself does not have the best track record on the matter. If the NFL really cared about free speech and expression, then it would not try to suppress it when players attempt to spread positive messages.

Here is a look at five times this decade that the controversial sports league has shown it does not really care about free speech.

1.) Tim Tebow’s Christian Eye Black Not OK. During his days as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the Florida Gators, Tebow used to wear sticker eye black and write “John 3:16” on it, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

However, when he got to the NFL in 2010, the devout Christian was not allowed to wear this same eye black because it violated the league’s uniform policy. He obliged by the rule, but in doing such he was denied the opportunity to share his faith while playing the game he loved.

2.) Robert Griffin III Can’t Praise Jesus. The first overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft and current Baltimore Ravens backup quarterback is a proud Christian. He has even called God his “most important influence.”

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After one of his games in 2014, Griffin was ready to walk up to the podium for his postgame press conference while wearing a shirt that said, “Know Jesus Know Peace.” But when he got to the podium, Griffin was wearing his shirt inside out. He turned the shirt inside out to avoid a fine because the league’s rules state that players are not allowed to wear clothing that “sends a personal message on game days.”

So, to be clear, Griffin was not allowed to share his faithful message on game day, yet there are now players blatantly doing the same by kneeling for the national anthem. Got it.

3.) Cowboys Not Allowed to Honor Slain Dallas Cops. After five Dallas police officers were slain in July 2016, the Dallas Cowboys put in a request to the league to wear helmet decals honoring the officers. The decal — created by owner Jerry Jones and star tight end Jason Witten — featured a star and the words “Arm in Arm.”

The Cowboys wore the decal for the first couple of weeks of training camp, but the NFL decided they could not wear them in games, as it would have violated their uniform policy.

4.) No Tolerance for Domestic Violence Awareness. The NFL has a particularly poor history when it comes to domestic violence and disciplining its players for it. In addition to that poor history, the league went ahead and punished a player who wanted to help stop the epidemic.

In 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers safety William Gay wore purple cleats to commemorate Domestic Violence Awareness month and was consequently handed a $5,787 fine for violating the league’s uniform code. If only the NFL had that kind of zero-tolerance policy against actual domestic violence…

5.) No Mental Health Awareness Promotion. In 2013, then-Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall wanted to help end the stigma around mental health problems, so he wore bright green and black cleats for Mental Health Awareness week.

The NFL did not appreciate his violation of their Uniform and Equipment Rules and ended up fining him $10,500. Ultimately, his response back to the league on Twitter was, “this fine is nothing compared to the conversation started & awareness raised.”

Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, and other outlets.

Tom Joyce
meet the author

Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, ESPN, and other outlets.

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