Boston University

Free speech has taken a knee, but Trump doesn’t really want it to stand tall. By Gianpaulo Pons at Boston University.

Free speech, in any form of expression, has been a heavily contested topic this weekend in regards to the National Football League (NFL). It began at a rally on Friday, September 22 when President Trump said any football player who disrespects the United States’ flag and anthem is a “son of a bitch” and should be subsequently fired. Besides the obvious use of vulgar and unwarranted language against a private citizen, the real issue and nod towards democratic erosion is the attempted suppression of free speech and polarizing divide among civilian groups.

It’s hard to know what Trump really thinks when he sees people kneeling down to protest during the anthem, but based on other Republican politicians and their constituents’ comments, there seems to be a common belief that the players are protesting the anthem and disrespecting our country. What some people fail to realize is that the NFL players are using the anthem as their medium to protest racial inequality and police brutality; they are not protesting the flag. The intention is not to dishonor our country or veterans, but rather to quietly demonstrate how they cannot — quite literally — stand up for the injustices that black Americans and people of color face to this day. Trump, however, decided this is un-American and this form of protest should be against NFL regulations. It is on this note that the president tries to influence how organizations are run based on his beliefs.

Even more alarming, Trump’s twitter rhetoric and retweets advocated that his followers boycott the NFL in response to the kneeling. This echoes a similar move Trump made in February after Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s brand from its stores. This degree of presidential involvement, while initially off-putting, seems to be more damaging to the already polarized division within the US. Whether Trump is knowingly mobilizing his fan base or not, his actions and words seem to acknowledge and benefit the people who voted for him, while simultaneously overlooking and challenging his opposition. This legitimizes his follower’s beliefs and furthers the already stark division within our nation.

Trump advanced his position and dissatisfaction of the NFL by tweeting twice about how the NFL’s ratings are “way down” this year. Although this is a legitimate case of free speech, it is misleading the public by presenting a false correlation between the boycott and its effect on football’s ratings. Even though this kneeling debate has actually increased viewership for the sport, the fact that Trump continues to misinform and rouse his constituents seems to only augment the divide, obscure truth, and threaten democracy.

While this topic may seem overanalyzed and a simple distraction from more pressing humanitarian issues, it’s important to note this isn’t the first time Trump tried to oppose free speech. Establishing the belief of alternative facts and fake news, claiming the press is the enemy of the American people, and stating there were bad people on both sides during the Charlottesville riot have all been a testament to what Trump’s view on freedom of speech is shaping to be: it’s important to maintain it as long as there are no opposing ideas. While this may appear as a drastic conclusion, it’s at least clear he wants to see no athlete express their political opinion in sports. And if given the authoritarian power, he would make sure to “fire” those who do.


*Photo by Danne, “Untitled” (Pexels), Creative Commons Zero license.


  1. Standing, Kneeling, and Absence: Is Democracy Backsliding? by: Zach Witkin @ Brown University – Democratic Erosion

    October 2, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    […] negative repercussions in response to their actions? I feel that that would be the case. As Gianpaulo Pons of Boston University wrote, this is not the first time Trump has exercised his own right to free speech. Thinking of the […]

  2. Michaela Kollin

    October 8, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Trump’s actions certainly seem to fall in line with Müller’s description of a populist leader, especially regarding populists’ love of conspiracy theories, undermining the establishment and limiting their definition of “the people” to specific groups. During the elections, he had many of his voters convinced that the election was “rigged” for Hillary to win. He discredited political elites and promised to represent the will of the people by “draining the swamp,” yet many of his appointees and cabinet members are also loyalists. As you mentioned, he and his administration have also spread misinformation when his press secretary claimed that his inauguration had drawn “the biggest crowds ever,” when he falsely stated that NFL ratings were “way down” due to these protests and when he called news organizations that printed things he didn’t like “fake news.” The latter tactic is especially troubling because it politicizes and delegitimizes real accusations of fake news, making it seem as if all of these accusations are politically motivated and watering down the meaning of fake news.

    Like the populist leaders Müller describes, he also has a very exclusionary conception of who “the people” are, ie, predominantly White, right-leaning American citizens who do not speak out against him or his policies. His rejection of football players right to their freedom of speech reveals his desire to limit civil society to those who already share his beliefs. As Lieberman et al pointed out in their paper “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States,” he has also exploited and exacerbated existing class and racial tensions in the United States in order to rally support. By using the power and platform he has as the president to criticize and insult African American football players who’re protesting police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem, he’s questioning their participatory rights, which is certainly a threat to democracy. His accusations of illegal voting that led to Clinton winning the popular vote also encourages disenfranchisement and the exclusion of impoverished minorities and immigrants. Questioning the legitimacy of the populace’s votes also erodes democratic norms, potentially posing a threat to democracy itself.


    March 15, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    I completely and whole-heartedly agree with the fact that Trump’s rhetoric has misinformed viewers of the core issue within the purpose of the non-violent protest of kneeling during the national anthem. In all honesty, his behavior is evidentiary to the fact that he is in fact a populist president. In essence, his rhetoric is a protest to the NFL players protest. However, with his tremendous platform and support of many far right extremist citizens he has further perpetuated the racial cleavage within the nation. Drawing the lines in the sand, Trump has subtly encouraged violence within the nation. His implications have given a metaphoric nod of permission to many racist sub-groups to further assist with the subjugation of minority citizens. Though Trump’s encouragement of political violence amongst MANY of his other behavioral short comings characterize the possibility of democratic erosion, the strength of checks and balances within the United States’ institutional infrastructure should be able to survive the ramifications of one unfit president.

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