I won’t lie, I was shocked to see ABC cancel their highest-rated sitcom over its star Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet against former Barack Obama cabinet member Valerie Jarrett. In this day and age, where money seems to rule the day, it was both courageous and refreshing to see a Hollywood entity that is in business to make gazillions of dollars actually sacrifice the Almighty Dollar to uphold its principles.
Roseanne Barr is a staunch supporter of the current president — that’s her business. She has aligned herself with many of his views on race; again, that’s her prerogative. She has peddled in racism and bigotry for years before this costly tweet and has gotten away with it because, well, she made a lot of money for the networks she worked for. She then re-established her larger than life character with the reboot of her record-breaking sitcom this year and received a boost of support from the president the day after her relaunch success. Roseanne was untouchable — or so she thought.
In the current climate, some people now feel empowered to spew bigoted comments — once reserved for private conversations — publicly on social media. The impetus for this can be debated — but not with me. The point I’m making is although people, especially those in the highest positions, feel they can unleash their intolerance and hatred toward others without consequence, they may want to think again. Our society still has much work to do, obviously, but due to the evolution of race relations and treatment of people in general, there are now many in high positions that will not tolerate such primitive behavior. With this in mind, I don’t think it was a coincidence that this groundbreaking decision was made under the watch of Channing Dungey, the first African-American (woman) to head programming at a major broadcast network. The more diversity there is in powerful positions, the more we will see unambiguous messages sent that intolerance of people based on race, religion or other biasses will not be tolerated – even if it costs millions of dollars. This was not about political correctness, it was about values over money, right over wrong.
I made the case in a recent blog post that the NFL’s decision to ban its players from kneeling during the national anthem was not a First Amendment violation. The same is true in this case, but what we say and do in public can have severe consequences. If you post something on social media that your employer deems offensive and antithetical to the company’s values, he or she has every right to fire you without recourse. In the same way, Roseanne found out the hard way she is not above others who espouse such rhetoric on social media. The only difference is she had more to lose – a lot more! Many will inevitably complain that her First Amendment rights were violated — good luck with that argument. The fact of the matter is she exhibited abhorrent behavior that violated her company’s model of inclusion, equality, and values of diversity.
So, what does this mean for our culture going forward? Does it mean people will now carefully consider the consequences of their actions and refrain from publicly stating their personal views about others? Does it mean we will collectively demand a higher standard from those with large public platforms? I don’t know the answer to either of these, nor does it matter. The most important thing I took from this news is that no amount of celebrity or money justified such intolerable behavior. In the past this may have been acceptable; and had there been someone else heading ABC today, perhaps Roseanne would still be employed. But she crossed the line. She and those who choose to publicly espouse their offensive opinions about race and religion will likewise have to live with the consequences. I strongly applaud this decision as it was great for ABC, reflective of America, and well deserved for Roseanne.
The NFL has easily been America’s favorite pastime for the past couple decades. The Superbowl is by far the largest televised, most profitable sporting event every year, and its players offer the greatest athleticism and skillset in the sport around the world. We love our football, but we cannot tolerate the players we love to watch display personal opinions on the platform they built. Shut up, play football, and entertain us!
The NFL is a private corporation that is free to do what it pleases so long as it operates within the United States constitution — fair enough. When its owners voted to now sanction players with a fine for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of a flag that doesn’t represent a “land of the free and home of the brave” for millions of its marginalized citizens, it’s well within its right to do so. But what message does that send to those players and the millions of black and brown people they are kneeling for who suffer from police brutality with impunity? What message does it also send to those who wish to maintain this abhorrent status quo of bias and unmitigated prejudice that permeates our penal system, education system, and unfair employment practices? I’ll tell you what the message is to both groups: none of those issues matter; all that matters is that you players perform at a high level, entertain our country, and be quiet.
Remember when I said the NFL has a right to do anything they want as a private corporation as long as no constitutional rights are trampled on? I’m referring to the same constitution that also protects one’s right to freedom of speech. Now, before I get lambasted by those constitutional experts out there, let me explicitly say I understand the difference between one being sanctioned by their employer and one facing penalty by the government for their peaceful protest. I’m not asserting that the players’ rights are being violated — they are not. But when they take a knee to peacefully protest injustices occuring in this country they love, are they not acting within the spirit of the First Amendment? Are they not exercising their civic right — and many would argue a duty with such a large stage at their disposal — to protest in the manner the constitution encourages when they feel aggrieved? Oh, this only applies when it doesn’t infringe on our Sunday afternoon entertainment? I’m sorry, I failed to read that portion in the constitution – it must be in the fine print section of the First Amendment.
Granted, I understand with all the political backlash and public outcry from those who, frankly, are not subjected to being beaten and killed on a daily basis for the mere color of their skin, the NFL felt the pressure to do something. And they could have done many things — other than what they did last week in an attempt to silence their employees and ignore the critical issues that plague our society daily. They could have met with the players and come to a compromise to alleviate the issue. They could have partnered with the players’ initiatives to address some of the issues the players care deeply about. They could have hosted a solutions-oriented forum that included many who have an interest in the subject, then put forth some of the capital from their massive account (the commissioner makes 40 million a year!) to fund some of the smartest solutions-oriented initiatives. Instead, they ruled with the iron fist that most powerful entities do when they want to silence an “unruly bunch” who dare to make their audience or clientele uncomfortable in order to make a valid point.
I purposely did not assert whether I personally think the form of protest is agreeable, proper, or preferable — that’s not my point. I will also not entertain the argument that the players are purportedly disrespecting the military by taking a knee — I have no interest in that either. I am merely stating that what the NFL did last week in changing its policy to sanction its players for kneeling in protest during the national anthem was a contradiction of the principles it claims to uphold: inclusiveness, equality, fairness, and many more ideals that apparently are easier to espouse than to practice. Instead of acknowledging their employee’s grievances and working collaboratively with them to find solutions, it jettisoned all its supposed values and deferred to the use of punishment to suppress the First Amendment right of its players. With so many alternative options and plentiful resources at its disposal, the NFL failed to explore any of them. It failed to treat its employees like citizens; it failed to rise above the pressure from those who will oppose change at all cost; it failed to exemplify the values and principles it claims to operate under; and it failed to exercise the same leadership it expects its players to uphold on and off the field.