Banning fans' free speech is not consistent with our vision of sport. Or democracy

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

“Push ‘em back, push ‘em back, waaay back!” is a classic American football chant encouraging the players to muscle the opposition back down the field. Today’s fan participation is a lot more complicated, especially after Major League Soccer recently banned a group of Portland Timbers fans from attending three matches at Providence Park for waving flags that displayed the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol (this weekend, Seattle Sounders fans walked out of a match in protest at the ban on “political” banners). Now when we yell that nostalgic “Push ‘em back” cheer we have to ask more complicated questions, such as who does “’em” refer to: the opposing team, the owners, or the fans? By “push” do you mean to bully people – owners, non-political fans, outspoken fans – out of their rights? And by “way back” do you mean back out of the stadium or back to the 1950s when politics and sports rarely crossed paths?

For 50 years, I have been an outspoken supporter of athletes’ right to silently protest during sporting events. Whether it’s raising a fist, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did during the 1968 Olympics, or Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, or LeBron James wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt while warming up for a game, athletes have a constitutional right to express their outrage over social injustice in the hopes of improving lives. Clearly, fans should have those same rights. But no one’s rights are absolute when the act of expressing them may restrict someone else’s rights. So, when championing the fans’ rights in this situation, there are a few considerations that have to be acknowledged.

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Athletes who protest during sports events have traditionally done so silently. Their act is designed to raise public awareness to inspire positive change while being respectful of the game. They do nothing to interfere with the sporting event, which would infringe on the fans’ rights. Although some owners and fans claim that any reminder of politics hurts their enjoyment, that’s an unreasonable reaction to the relatively brief and unobtrusive expression of constitutional rights on behalf of those marginalized people being denied their rights.

The first problem with the stance that sporting events should be non-political is that the playing of the national anthem itself introduces politics into the sporting event. It’s blatantly pandering in an effort to associate the event with patriotism, akin to a politician kissing a baby or petting a puppy. It’s like telling a fan, “You’re being patriotic just by being here, slurping beer and chomping a hot dog.” Before 2009, NFL players weren’t required to even come out of the locker room for the playing of the anthem. In 2015, a joint oversight report revealed that $5.4m of taxpayer money had been paid to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2015 for displays of “patriotic salutes” to the military. Between 2012 and 2015, the US department of defense spent at least $10.4m on “marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams.” This isn’t patriotism by the teams, it’s commerce. There is nothing patriotic about a ball passing over a goal-line or through a hoop and we shouldn’t sanctify our games as a litmus test of who deserves to express their opinions. Teams should have the right to make such deals, but they shouldn’t then suppress free speech while they’re busy selling the right to speak to the highest bidder.

What leagues can do is insist that expressions of political allegiance are maintained within consistent parameters that insure they don’t interfere with fans watching the event they paid to enjoy. By consistent, I mean that if a stadium allows American flags or team banners to be waved or displayed, then they should allow political flags and banners of the same size to be waved by fans, as long as they don’t promote symbols of hate and violence, such as swastikas. Certainly, if fans held up large banners that blocked the view of other spectators, that would be a violation. But if you allow a MAGA hat or t-shirt then you have to allow an Iron Front hat or t-shirt.

Team owners have expressed fear that the interjection of politics, no matter how noble the purpose, will alienate their fanbase. Part of this fear was stoked by President Trump’s tweets in 2017, at the height of player protests, that the NFL ratings were “WAY DOWN” and that “The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag and our National Anthem.” Not surprisingly, this was false. The NFL increased its revenue by 5% in 2017. When Nike launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the conventional wisdom chortled that Nike would take a huge commercial hit from that mysterious and feared fanbase that hates free speech. It didn’t happen. Instead, Nike’s sales rose by 10%.

Fear is the greatest enemy of free speech and facts are the greatest cure to that fear. Thomas Jefferson urged us to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” But, with so many Russian trolls disseminating false information in an effort to sway our elections, with a president who lies on a daily basis, with news outlets like Fox News that have been proven to report misinformation, and with most people restricting their input of information to sources they already agree with, sometimes the only way to convey an opposing opinion to the population at large is through public gatherings. Which is why it’s all the more important to make sure those avenues of expression stay open.

One of the reasons we embrace sports so dearly is that they can symbolize human interaction at its most noble: fair play, meritocracy, sportsmanship, competitiveness, striving to be better, pushing the limits of human achievement. Curtailing the free speech of athletes or fans is not consistent with our vision of sports. Or our vision of democracy.