Should supporters of the right of National Football League players to take a knee during the national anthem also raise their hackles about the cancellation of Roseanne Barr’s situation comedy?
Of course the question could be posed the other way. If Facebook is any indication, there are large numbers of conservatives supporting Barr but not the players, just as there are large numbers of liberals supporting the athletes but not the entertainer.
Roseanne’s situation, like that of the two NFL players reportedly under league boycott, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, raises the bar because the “punishment” for the exercise of free speech was not a fine or a lambasting by an ignorant and crude autocrat, but the loss of a very lucrative job, and in the case of the players, a career.
No one disputes that Barr had the right to make the ugly racist joke she did about Valerie Jarrett, whereas many argue that the players’ actions were taken while on the job and therefore subject to the policies and regulations of their employer. Technically, however, anyone with an employment contract that includes what used to be called a “morals clause”—a stipulation that the employee stay out of trouble and conduct themselves always in a professional, ethical and legal manner—is always on the job. A morals or behavior clause restricts speech and actions as much as a league policy does. These clauses are standard in employment contracts and must be in the one that Barr signed. No has the right to restrict free speech, but both the NFL and Disney thus probably have the right to punish their employees for the exercise of free speech under certain, highly defined circumstances. Both Barr and the players on the field probably fall into those circumstances.
But free speech is not the only issue involved. The other issues are racism, truth and civil discourse. When we analyze the actions of Barr and Kaepernick from these perspectives, I think it’s easy to favor labor (Kaepernick) in one instance and management (ABC/Disney) in the other.
Kaepernick was trying to bring public attention to the fact that not much has been done to address the racial bias nationwide in the killing of civilians by police officers. He was speaking a truth and he did so without insulting anyone directly. True enough, those who believe that anything other than standing at strict attention at the playing of the national anthem are traitors were offended, as were those who believe that any criticism of police is always wrong. Let’s remember they and their predecessors also expressed outrage when Barr sang the national anthem in the character of a crude baseball player at the 1990 All-Star Game; her comic version offended their sensitivities. Kaepernick used a tool of free expression called civil disobedience and a platform that would be certain to attract attention, a televised football game. Yes, he pissed some people off and made lots more uncomfortable, but he insulted no one directly, told the truth and behaved in a civil manner. Moreover, he spoke on the side of the angels, unless you believe that the moral imperatives of any religion leave room for unequal treatment of anyone because of race.
Barr’s tweet was a racist insult of Obama-advisor Valerie Jarrett meant to incite the Twittersphere. She resurrected an old and ugly insult of African-Americans—that they are like apes, less human, or as Donald Trump recently described Hispanic immigrants, animals. She also managed to tie Jarrett to the Muslim Brotherhood, the kind of smear that keeps on smearing, because not only is it false, but it also assumes that there is something bad about the Muslim Brotherhood, which in this case is a transparent stand-in for all of Islam. As when people called Obama a Muslim, the denial can be construed as agreement that Islam is bad. We don’t really know why Barr tweeted. Was it because she was under the influence of Ambien (and why should that matter?) as she claims; or attempting to get attention for her show; or suffering the momentary boiling over of anger and frustration from a myriad of sources. It matters not. It was ugly and had only one goal: To use racism to insult another public figure. Barr had no thought of public betterment. She did not behave in a civil manner. And she expressed a thought, Black person = ape, that is completely racist and cannot be excused.
Thus, while we should “support” the right of free expression exercised by both Kaepernick and Barr, only Kaepernick’s conduct was right, as in correct.
Which brings us to the institutions. The highly public nature of the actions turned each into a minor point of skirmish in the continuing culture wars. Like it or not, both the NFL and Disney ended up taking sides, pissing off millions and gaining the admiration of millions.
But what did the side-taking say about the organizations? Disney’s cancellation of “Roseanne” said that the organization cannot and will not abide overt racial ugliness, even if it costs them a little money. And I do say, a little. “Roseanne” was slotted to make about $60 million for Disney next year; even if the replacement show does half of that, the $30 million loss would be five one-hundredths of one percent of the company’s 2017 revenues of more than $55 billion—a suitcase on the Queen Mary, as the expression goes. For Disney, spending $30 million to tell international and youth markets that it hates obvious virulent racism sounds like a pretty good investment in damage-control public relations. And like the best crisis PR, it turns a negative into a positive.
By contrast, what could the NFL possibly be saying? I know that it wants to say that it believes politics should not enter the game or the playing arena in any way, ever, but it’s making a lot of other messages. It says that the NFL still has the plantation mentality that characterized all sports leagues before free agency. It says that the NFL agrees with the rigid, easy-to-anger patriots who will broach no action that could be construed as flag desecration. It says that the NFL subscribes to the same authoritarian stances regarding civil disobedience as Trumpty-Dumpty does. And, unfortunately, it says that the NFL sides with those who either don’t believe the statistics that show blacks suffer more violence in arrest and incarceration than whites do, or that it doesn’t care. Or that it thinks it’s a good thing.
More than anything else, the contrast between Kaepernick and Barr demonstrates that the free speech argument is often a bogus substitute for the real issue—racism in America. Racism is what the quarterback protested and racism is what the comedian was spouting. Yes she has a right to do it, but I’m happy as hell Disney fired her, and disappointed that the NFL is trying to control its plantation hands.