San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines last week with his decision to sit down during the playing of the national anthem before the Packers – 49ers preseason game. After the game, he explained his actions. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.
His actions reflect the tenuous balance between an individual’s freedom of speech and the rights of an employer to regulate the behavior and conduct of their employees. In this case, we are taking about a highly compensated, professional football player. The team issued a quick response saying that they respected the decision of the player to exercise his right not to stand during the anthem, but also noted that the anthem would continue to be an important part of the pre-game ceremony at their stadium.
Will his decision to sit accomplish anything? It’s not clear. His comments touched on a much larger issue full of wide-ranging perspectives on our difficult national history as it relates to race relations. But it might have meant a lot more if it had come at a time when he was the starting quarterback for the 49ers. For the team, handling a situation like this can be all consuming, and to their credit, the organization did try to take a balanced approach by defending their player’s actions while highlighting the importance of the national anthem and what it represents when played at sporting events.
Employers have rights, as do employees, and the challenging part is when those two forces come into conflict. The team could have sat down with Kaepernick, explained their position, and asked him to reconsider either his actions at further games, or stay inside the locker room, to respect the playing of the anthem for the other players and fans in the stadium. They chose to allow him to protest in his own way, and deferred to the player’s right to demonstrate his free speech. I’m not sure a lot of other companies would have been as accommodating or as patient with a controversial employee, but in this case, the team handled it in the manner they saw fit.
However it plays out, actions like those of Colin Kaepernick will continue to draw attention to larger societal issues and raise the question of appropriateness and what constitutes free speech in the context of an employer-employee relationship. In his case, his platform for protest may be dwindling. His spot on the roster is not guaranteed, and he has been mentioned as a possible cut as the 49ers roster is trimmed down for the regular season.