The League

Michael Oriard
Author

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Hardly Dangerous Speech

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On most controversial issues I tend to see complicating factors. If there were no complications, there would be only one reasonable side and the issue would not be controversial.

On this question, though, I'm an absolutist. Brendon Ayanbadejo has every right to express his opinions on gay marriage, as did the Packers' Reggie White several years ago from a diametrically opposed position, as do all of the NFL's crusading Christians, not to mention all of its Democrats and Republicans, as well as its Libertarians, Socialists, and Communists, if there are any.

The complicating factors regarding free expression tend to arise when the "expression" in question is either dangerous or offensive. (If it's simply slanderous, there are laws that address it.) Advocating for gay marriage is certainly not dangerous, but to some it is offensive. As were White's anti-gay comments a decade ago; and even, no doubt, as are invocations of The Lord by NFL players in sideline interviews after games.

The complicating factor regarding free expression by athletes depends on who's doing the criticizing. Fans offended by athletes' pronouncements often insist that politics (or religion) has no place in sports. This is a silly argument. Sports are as thoroughly political as every other institution, even when they don't seem political at all (some would claim that sports are most political at those times). Some progressive observers, on the other hand, criticize athletes for not speaking out on issues of political or social importance. It is usually black athletes who are singled out, denounced for not taking activist positions like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and some others before them. I've never been comfortable with this criticism, in large part, no doubt, because as a white athlete (a long time ago) I did not face the same expectation; but also due to other complicating factors. African American athletes with wealth and celebrity can (and some do) work on behalf of progressive change in less public ways.

The complicating factor regarding free expression by an NFL player arises from the league's concern over managing the brand. In its desire to reach the largest possible audience and greatest possible number of consumers of its products, the NFL is guided by the principle of offending no one. League officials undoubtedly cringe whenever a player, be he Reggie White or Brendon Ayanbadejo, speaks out in a way that might alienate some portion of the NFL's fan base. But I assume that for league officials, whatever their discomfort, there are no complicating factors here. On some social issues the NFL necessarily has its own position -- blatant racism would be intolerable. But it has no necessary position on gay marriage. Whatever their own views on the issue, league officials surely understand that they would do the NFL far more damage by taking a position against free expression than by trying to placate those offended by an outspoken player.

What's strange in this whole affair is the fact that an NFL player's support for gay marriage should be in any way controversial.

By Michael Oriard  |  September 25, 2009; 6:03 AM ET  | Category:  Baltimore Ravens , NFL , Race Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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