Stop Censorship in Sports

It’s impossible to remove politics from sports. Instead, we must foster a culture of free expression.

Stewards confiscating a rainbow flag held by a Denmark fan before a Euro 2020 quarterfinal match in Baku, Azerbaijan, on July 3, 2021. (Photo: Darko Vojinovic/Pool/AFP, via Getty Images)

By David Bernstein

When the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in 2016, he unleashed far more than a racial reckoning. He ignited a global debate about freedom of speech in sports and society.

Now, American-style free speech wars in sports have gone global. During the recent European Football Championship, numerous British soccer players took the knee in support of the fight against racism and for change in the sport. In response, we heard the familiar refrain that “We should keep politics out of football” from right-wing politicians like Nigel Farage. In the same tournament, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) blocked Germany’s Allianz Arena from lighting up in rainbow colors in response to an anti-LGBTQ law that was passed in Hungary. UEFA said it banned the lighting up of the German stadium because the act was “political.”

In both cases, this line of argument is a cop-out. No matter how much professional sports and sports fans may wish to separate sports from politics, it cannot be done. The debate re-emerges again and again with no resolution in sight, and you can bet it will kick into gear once the medal ceremonies start at the Tokyo Olympics.

So, rather than attempting to extricate itself from politics, sports should adopt a laissez-faire posture: Let everyone—owners, players, and fans—make political statements at sports matches. That way, no one in authority will have to worry about the charge of hypocrisy, which often follows the myriad decisions about which political acts to allow and which ones to ban. In so doing, sports can set the tone for the rest of society and, indeed, the rest of the world. Amid illiberal trends and a censorious culture on both sides of the political spectrum, we desperately need a reminder of why free speech matters.

Everyone is watching how the professional sports leagues address issues of freedom of speech. If they stifle speech, it may be used as justification to suppress speech in other sectors. If they welcome dissent, it will set the tone for other institutions. Sports team owners, coaches, and players have the opportunity to uphold the value of free speech for society at large by not imposing onerous restrictions.

There are those who will argue that owners, players, and fans do not have an unmitigated right to free speech. Professional sports is, they say, private enterprise, and private enterprise has the right to restrict what employees say and customers do on their premises. True enough. For much of American history, the battle over free speech was primarily a legal and political one to prevent the government from squelching the free speech of private citizens and groups. Think McCarthy era, when the power of government was used to suppress free speech and political activity. 

But today’s battle over free speech is largely cultural, not legal. The real question is, what kind of culture do we want—one that allows people to express themselves, or one that restricts people from speaking their minds? If we want a more open society, we must stand up for free expression in private institutions—whether the threat is from authoritarian governments that seek to shield themselves from criticism of their human rights records, or from brand-conscious sports teams that don’t want to alienate their fanbase.

Take the case of Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets professional basketball team, who in 2019 tweeted an image that said “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” Surprisingly, it was the players, and not the league, who caved to Chinese demands and pressured Morey to be silent on Hong Kong. Lebron James, for example, took aim at Morey, stating that he “was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” 

By contrast, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver, held firm. When the Chinese canceled the airing of two preseason games in response to Morey’s remarks, Silver stated: “I think it’s unfortunate … but if that’s the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.” Ultimately, Morey deleted the tweet after a backlash from Chinese sponsors, fans, and the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston, proving that despite support from some sports leaders like Silver, how much latitude players, or even coaches, feel they have to express themselves is still very much an open issue. 

Likewise, when Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem, team owners and the National Football League initially tried to rein him in. Wiser heads eventually prevailed, and Kaepernick and other NFL players were allowed to make their point, although Kaepernick was released by the 49ers in 2017 and has not been drafted by another NFL franchise since. But unlike the Morey affair, the Kaepernick episode modeled an important dialogue, one that proves that freedom of expression can create greater understanding between opposing viewpoints.

Nate Boyer, an actor, Green Beret, and former professional football player who initially believed Kaepernick was disrespectful to the military by sitting during the anthem, later wrote an open letter of support for Kaepernick’s right to expression. As Boyer told a reporter: “When I went back and actually listened to his first full 18-minute interview in the locker room and heard ... that he had a respect for the military and it wasn’t about the military in any way, [I realized] it wasn’t even really about the flag or the anthem … I changed my tune and I listened and tried to understand, and that’s what prompted me to write that open letter.” Eventually, Boyer even convinced Kaepernick that taking a knee would be a more respectful gesture than sitting down during the anthem. 

Silencing the expression of athletes makes healthy discourse much more difficult. The Kaepernick-Boyer public conversation would never have occurred. Perhaps team owners and players alike can come to understand that the highest form of patriotism is not saluting a flag or imposing a view, but bolstering a culture of free speech.

We must stand up for freedom of speech without hypocrisy and be willing to do it even when we don’t resonate with a cause. Personally, I would never dream of sitting during the national anthem, but I recognize that a sports team that tries to prevent athletes from speaking their minds is stifling dissent and sending a dangerous message to the rest of society. Likewise, the European soccer players who take a knee and the soccer stadiums lit up in rainbow colors all serve a useful function in reminding us that healthy, free societies allow people to speak up.

I don’t have to agree with the act of protest to understand that suppressing it makes us all less free.

David Bernstein is the founder and chief executive of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.