Texas senatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke's spirited defense of NFL players who kneel during the pre-game national anthem echoes the now-standard argument that the players' actions are merely intended to call attention to the important issue of police violence. This is pure gaslighting, of course: kneeling for the national anthem has a clear symbolic meaning--refusal to show respect for the country and its symbols--that no flood of grandiose invocations of the police-violence red herring can ever negate. If a group of counter-protesting NFL players decided to burn a cross on the field before a game, for example, claiming that they were simply expressing outrage at disrespect for the flag by fellow players, nobody would be fooled about the hideous, racist meaning of their gesture. Likewise, to claim that it's a mere coincidence that original kneeler and Fidel Castro supporter Colin Kaepernick happened to choose refusing to stand for the anthem as his form of protest, rather than some other gesture that might have been a bit less overtly and unmistakably anti-American, is simply preposterous.
A somewhat more plausible argument in the kneelers' favor is to invoke the players' free speech rights. After all, nobody doubts that ordinary citizens have the legal right to congregate in a public place and join together in kneeling for the national anthem, however insulting it may be to patriotic observers. But do they have the right to do so without retaliation from their employers--in this case, the NFL and its teams? And does it matter whether their protest occurs at their workplace--an NFL field, prior to a game--or away from it?
The answer to these questions is in fact far from a matter of consensus these days, as the Eich and Damore cases in the information technology industry have amply demonstrated. My own preferred convention would be for (private) employers to be considered free to regulate employee speech in the workplace as they see fit, as long as they treat any non-work-related speech as none of their concern. Hence, in my view, The NFL should declare that players are free to protest police violence--and kneel for the anthem, if they choose--off the field, on their own time, with no employer-imposed consequences. But the league should also be free to set rules for on-field behavior, including during the national anthem before games.
Reasonable people can, of course, differ on the right balance between the value of individual free speech and an employer's prerogative to set criteria for employment. Unfortunately, thoughtful debate about that balance is in this case largely drowned out by transparently dishonest rhetoric about the plain meaning of an unambiguous gesture.