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NFL owners are stifling speech, but it’s not called “no-platforming” when you’re rich and own the platform

Real power over the flow of ideas rests with the wealthy.

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NFL announced Wednesday that it has reached an agreement on a new policy that will penalize players who decline to stand for the national anthem (and the teams that employ them), while President Trump argued that the penalties should be more severe.

Players who decline to stand for the anthem (and the teams that employ them) will be penalized, but players who have a conscientious objection to standing will be permitted to remain in the locker room during the song rather than being forced to stand.

The opt-out, in this case, is worthless since from the beginning nobody was objecting per se to the anthem — they were taking advantage of the anthem ceremony to make a visible act of social protest against police violence. If you’re off the field, you’re not visible and your protest is undermined.

From the NFL’s standpoint, of course, that’s exactly the point. Colin Kaepernick and his imitators had landed the league in the middle of a contentious political dispute whose salience Trump chose to elevate, and that’s bad for business. Silencing the protests, silencing the Trump tweets, and trying to get the NFL out of partisan politics and contentious racial disagreements is kind of a no-brainer from a dollars-and-cents viewpoint.

The NFL’s stance is an interesting counterpoint to the “no-platform” tactics that have set off a raging national debate about free speech. In the past year, the debate has played out time and again when liberal college students heckle invited speakers whose views they deem harmful and has driven the public debates over free speech. A heckling incident targeting a Christina Hoff Sommers’s appearance at a small private law school in Oregon led to two separate New York Times op-eds earlier this year, and a similar episode involving a Ben Shapiro speech at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus inspired the state legislature to pass a law mandating expulsion for students who engage in no-platforming.

The contrast between conservative attitudes toward the campus no-platforming issue and the NFL protest issue is, in part, about the content of the expression at hand. Conservatives like the substance of what Sommers and Shapiro have to say and disagree with Kaepernick and his imitators about the police brutality issue.

But it also speaks to a core dilemma of the free expression issue as it’s conventionally framed. Nobody’s communications platform can be infinitely open or free of control by the people who own or fund it. But the select group of people rich and powerful enough to own the means of production — and thus have no need to resort to heckler’s vetoes or other no-platform tactics — are extremely unrepresentative of the population as a whole, starting but by no means ending with the fact that they’re obscenely rich.

The rich are different from you and me

Of the 32 NFL teams, one is co-owned by Korean American Kim Pegula (and her husband, a white man), one is owned Pakistani American Shad Khan, and 30 are owned by white people — most of them white men. Despite the league’s heavily African-American workforce, none of the teams have black owners. Major League Baseball has no black principal franchise owners, and the NBA has one: Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats.

This makes sports team owners very atypical of the overall demographics of the United States.

But, importantly, the paucity of black owners is less a reflection of some nefarious racial cabal than it is of the fact that pro sports franchise owners are, by definition, rich. And the very rich are very different, demographically speaking, from the overall American population. Research from Lisa Keister at Duke University conducted a few years ago found that the top 1 percent of the US income distribution is 91 percent white, 1.8 percent Latino, and just 0.2 percent African-American — way out of line with the national demographic balance.

And, of course, the kind of people rich enough to own sports franchises are much richer than your typical one-percenter. And the further you rise into elite circles, the more unlike the rest of us the rich become. The 50 wealthiest Americans on Forbes’s list of the superrich include five women, two guys named Larry, and zero black people. The ability to do things like buy pro sports teams, serve as vanity publishers of newspapers or magazines, cut huge checks to universities, or own television stations, in other words, is very concentrated in the hands of a group of people who are deeply unrepresentative in demographic terms and in light of the simple reality that they are extremely rich.

Platform control matters

The good news for free speech is that rich people generally like money, and this operates as a practical constraint on the extent to which they use their control of platforms for political purposes. NFL owners are a conservative-leaning bunch, for example, but they aren’t going to subject fans to pregame lectures about the merits of tax cuts because they don’t want to annoy the audience.

But one luxury of being rich is you can sacrifice some financial upside for political purposes if you want to. A recent paper by Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain found that when Sinclair Broadcast Group, a legendarily right-wing network of local TV stations, buys a station, its local news programs begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort.

Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, meanwhile, found in a separate study that without Fox News’s slanted coverage, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. The Koch brothers have started using their financial clout to buy influence on college campuses, making generous contributions in exchange for a role in hiring faculty members. Google spends millions of dollars a year sponsoring academic research that it hopes will influence both mass and elite opinion in favor of Google-friendly policy conclusions, and it’s obviously not the only wealthy business that does this.

There isn’t necessarily a solution to this beyond a generally more egalitarian distribution of wealth. But it’s critical context to keep in mind when you see students or social media “mobs” or others trying to exert control over platforms they don’t own. These are tools of the relatively weak and powerless, and highlighting them as the only means through which the exercise of free discourse can be constrained is missing the bulk of the story.