Per Brian Munoz of the Daily Egyptian, Southern Illinois University has come under heat from numerous civil liberty groups after it included language in its student athlete code of conduct that banned any form of political activism while in uniform or while competing in a university event. Here’s the language in question, “It is a privilege and not a right to be a student-athlete, cheerleader or spirit member at Southern Illinois University. Members of the department including student athletes, cheerleaders, and spirit members must remain neutral on any issue political in nature when wearing SIU official uniforms and when competing/performing in official department of athletics events and activities. Any display (verbal or non-verbal) of activism (either for or against) a political issue will not be tolerated and may result in dismissal from the program.” The University rescinded the language and afterwards claimed that this was about displaying unity rather than quashing a form of student speech they didn’t agree with but there are holes in that argument which Munoz later delves into. This story falls a bit outside the bounds of this blog but it is an interesting legal question with important ramifications.
To establish some context though, this rule is clearly representative of the current political atmosphere and the questions over whether sports should be another platform of political activism. It has all been centered around the national anthem and the outrage/inspiration that Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players sparked when they made the courageous and controversial decision to kneel during its playing to protest police brutality and its connection with systemic racism. Many other athletes in various sports soon followed as debates popped up constantly about whether players should be using the publicness of sports to make a difference in politics. The reaction on the Right was unsurprisingly angry and wildly hypocritical. They shifted between screaming about the sanctity of the national anthem and screaming about how sports should be a politics free zone. It’s probably easy to tell from the way I described Kaepernick’s protest and the reaction to it, but I see what he did as heroic and important. I also am under no fairy tale that sports and politics are some separate entities that can’t ever cross over. They’ve been interconnected since when modern sports began and will always be connected. Why is this country so obsessed with the upset over the Soviet Union in the 1984 winter olympics? How do people think sports facilities get built? Do they not think the creation of those facilities and teams themselves are by their very nature political processes? I am confident that posterity will look unkindly at those who tried to silence these justified protests in much the same way that posterity treats unkindly those who tried to silence Muhammad Ali. The crux of the whole thing is that Conservatives are more concerned about the content of the activism than being an activist itself. And here’s how this all circles back to the Southern Illinois controversy: what activism is the rule intending to prevent?
Numerous law experts weighed in on the controversy, Munoz writes. William Friegal, a media law professor who actually teaches at SIU, noted the rules hypocrisy. “The government can make neutral rules for students to follow and universities can set higher standards of conduct for athletes, cheerleaders and other student leaders,” Freivogel said. “But in the process, the government can’t discriminate based on the content or viewpoint of speech. The university cannot punish a student leader for taking a knee during the anthem if the school is also not prepared to ‘punish pro-flag, pro-military or Tim Tebow-style religious gestures.” Right there is the main reason the reaction against these protests is so two faced, disingenuous, and biased. Every sporting event it seems like there is a mandated celebration of the military with everybody getting up to give a giant round of applause while those who are uncomfortable with the constant presence of nationalism feel like alienated outcasts if they don’t stand and applaud too. There is zero doubt that that is inherently political. Celebrating the military and what it does is political activism, and one that Conservatives are totally fine with. Gregory Magarian, a law professor at Washington University In Saint Louis who was interviewed for the Daily Egyptian article, called out this contradiction as well. “If we’re going to say there’s nothing political about standing for the national anthem then we are saying one of two things – we’re saying it’s meaningless, or we’re saying that we are absolutely forcing a consensus political view on everybody and it has political significance – and you will obey that political significance, or you are out.” Boom, perfectly said. Apparently it is political to kneel for the anthem, but standing for it is some act of pureness and patriotism.
Another potent criticism of the Universities actions that the article mentions comes from Ed Yohnka, the head of Illinois’ ACLU chapter. He makes the very accurate assertion that student activism is what the university experience is all about. “A central purpose for any public university is to engage students and the community in the issues of our time,” Yohnka said. “Schools should not threaten students – or hide them away – because they engage in protests that some in the community may not agree with.” He is right, and the whole thing is especially galling when you consider how much the Right uses the myth of over sensitive left wing college kids as justification for espousing racist, homophobic, and sexist ideals. They whine so much about how the left can’t handle opposing viewpoints, but if you quietly kneel for the anthem they go into a tantrum. As all the experts form the article weighed in, Universities should not be trying to depoliticize a space that is inherently politicized already. It disproportionately affects the marginalized people protesting for better lives and better treatment, which of course seems like the goal.