The League

Nathan Whitaker

Nathan Whitaker

The co-author of three New York Times bestsellers and lawyer for college and professional football coaches.

Watch What You Say


Should a professional athlete feel compelled to censor himself or herself and not talk about politics? Or, let's ask the question another way. In a world where it seems that every person in America feels no reluctance to express themselves on any conceivable topic whether through Facebook, Twitter or a blog, should athletes "shut up and play?" Of course not. Please contribute. It's a marketplace of ideas, after all, and civil opinions always have their place -- even if their source can also flatten a quarterback.

Obviously, while the celebrity's voice should have the same weight as the reader, the reality in our society, for good or otherwise, is that the former has more impact -the reader chooses to give greater voice to the celebrity. Yet in a larger context we all have platforms, whether as husbands, mothers, co-workers, friends... or professional athletes. We should all use those platforms in a manner consistent with our beliefs, to better society. Whether it's you, me, or a linebacker for the Ravens.

As Tony Dungy and I wrote in our book, Uncommon, "It's also important that [players] realize the platform that playing in the NFL gives them in a world that places such a premium on sports. They have a chance to positively influence many people and mobilize them to change things in their local community and beyond. To lift lives that need to be lifted. To make a long-term and perhaps eternal difference in those they encounter along the way."

Having urged the player to press on and let his voice be heard on an issue that moves him or her, I would offer two caveats:

First, they might at least give some thought to what their employer's position might be, if any. One can imagine various headlines that might cause a club or league some discomfort. I'm not suggesting that the club's opinion should carry the day so as to change, silence or even water down a strongly held belief, but simply that a player might be mindful of the club, including and possibly forewarning and discussing it with them if he thinks that his public statement might cause an unfavorable reaction.

The other warning is to thoughtfully consider whether this issue would be one that he or she would want to define them tomorrow - or twenty years from tomorrow. Judging by Brendon Ayanbadejo's piece, I have no doubt that he thought through this question, but I sometimes wonder whether much thought was given when voicing opinions when I see what appear to be off-the-cuff quotes from players. On the flip side, however, as the Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate has said over the last few weeks, his views now are not what they were in 1989 - but for him, his written words from 1989 live on. Players and others who make use of their platform to speak out on an issue would be wise to ensure that they want to be known for the hot button stance, whatever it may be. Maybe it falls from the public's memory and never captures their imagination, but those who do speak out are hoping that they do capture that imagination and lodge in the collective memory. Make sure it's something you want to live on with you.

In short, as one of my law school classmates who constantly litigates First Amendment speech issues tells his clients, "say your piece, but do so humbly, respectfully, and with the knowledge that the words may live longer than you'd like."

By Nathan Whitaker  |  September 25, 2009; 6:15 AM ET  | Category:  Baltimore Ravens , NFL , Tony Dungy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The player has the same right to his opinion as anyone else, but he also has the same responsibility to offer a clearly reasoned opinion as anyone else. In this case, the player whiffed on tackling the facts. The definition of marriage is not a religious issue but a moral issue, which is why people of many religious faiths as well as no faith at all believe the definition of marriage should be kept just the way it is.

He has the same right to be wrong as any of us, and clearly he has embraced that opportunity.

Posted by: mayoungkin | September 25, 2009 8:36 AM

The definition of marriage is neither a religious issue nor a moral issue, but a legal issue. This is why the state authorizes persons to solemnize marriages and many weddings end with the words "By the power vested in me by the State of Whatever..." and not some reliance on moral authority. This is why JPs and judges and other civil officers are empowered to marry folks- it's a legal contract.

Posted by: kguy1 | September 25, 2009 9:07 AM

Mayoungkin -No one has a responsibility to offer a clearly reasoned opinion. If that's the standard for exercise of free speech, 99% of what is said or written would be banned, starting with your comments which have nothing to do with logic - they're value judgements, no more or less so that what Brendon Ayanbadejo had to say.

Posted by: Henry5 | September 25, 2009 10:40 AM

"[Players] might at least give some thought to what their employer's position might be..."

Not relevant.

Team owners may own players' bodies, but they don't own players' souls. And players are not robots. They have inner lives, with feelings, thoughts, ideas, and convictions.

Whatever the "position" (political, religious, or otherwise) of an employer might be, the player is in no way obligated to support or uphold it -- or even to refrain from publicly rejecting it.

Posted by: kjohnson3 | September 25, 2009 10:50 AM

Professional athletes are free to voice their opinions on their own time and in their own forum. Meaning, when I go to a football game, I don't care to know what a player's political or social beliefs are. The field, court, or ice, is not the arena to be displaying one's political beliefs for all to see.

Posted by: screwjob1 | September 25, 2009 11:32 AM

Just read Mr. Ayanbadejo's opinion piece, and there's two glaring errors in it. First of all, there is no overarching separation between church and state that he claims. This country was founded on a judeo-christian basis, which influenced much of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and our rule of law.

And "secular capitalistic democracy"? What kind of crap is that? We're a constitutional republic, pure and simple. Perhaps Mr. Ayanbadejo would do well to take a summer class in government civics.

One more thing, marriage by definition is between a man and a woman. I have no problem with civil unions, but there is no such thing as gay marriage.

Posted by: screwjob1 | September 25, 2009 11:46 AM

This writer is obviously opposed or at least suspect of gay rights. Just come out and say it instead of pussy-footing around.

No, Ayanbadejo will not look back in regret at this statement, it is a timeless statement of civil rights and equality for all.

Does MLK look back on his statements demanding equality for blacks?

And yes, there is much truth in Ayanbadejo's insistence that denying gays equal rights (politically and socially) is religous in nature.

Mayoungkin: I suggest you reflect on your own religous beliefs, and how they affect your political beliefs, because it sounds like you are a right-wing christian.
The problem with conservative christians who oppose treating gays as equal citizens to straights is that they believe this is "God's will" and thus free themselves from criticism.
NO, NO, NO. This is your opinion, based on what (arguably) is said in the bible about gays. You are choosing to deny gays rights because you feel threatened by their presence in society, and you have very little empathy for them. Go move to Poland or some Catholic dictatorship.

Posted by: rock0120 | September 25, 2009 1:47 PM

I think that professional athletes should refrain from speaking out on political issues unless it involves some really pervasive injustice. For most sports fans, the disconnect between the games and broader reality is part of sport’s appeal. That enjoyment would be compromised if each fan had to consider the real distinctions of differing political viewpoints as opposed to the arbitrary distinctions of where a team plays, the present skill level of the players, the history of the franchise or the appeal of the uniforms.

I cringe when I see a ballplayer issue an opinion that I agree with for two reasons: First, they may prove to me a poor advocate for my opinions; second, it legitimizes that platform for players that I disagree with. That said, I do not think the players should be censored by the team or the government.

Posted by: SCKershaw | September 25, 2009 6:14 PM

Marriage is a right, not a rite.

Posted by: ozpunk | September 26, 2009 4:46 PM

This comment is most applicable to those made by ROCK0120. I am a close and personal friend of Nathan's and happen to be gay. He is a man of high morals who exemplifies the most wonderful of personal/religious characteristics - tolerance. Regardless of your views on gay marriage, you cannot group Nathan into the militant minded anti gay marriage crowd.

Posted by: MeredithGator | October 2, 2009 10:11 AM

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