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Sue Carlton: The president, the players and the one about free speech

By Sue Carlton
Members of the Indianapolis Colts take a knee during the Nation Anthem. . SOURCE: AP

Here is the remarkable thing about the president's recent and ongoing harangue against professional football players who kneel during the national anthem instead of standing, a form of peaceful protest:

There may be no person in the free world who has benefitted more from the right to say what he wants — no matter how controversial, no matter how offensive — than Donald Trump.

Illegal immigrants?

Women in all their glorious grabbable-ness?

Critics?

Politicians who oppose him?

We are well aware — and in colorful terms — of his freewheeling feelings on these subjects. This is a man who made a potty joke worthy of an 11-year-old boy about the woman he was running against. And got crude by innuendo about a female newscaster. And got elected anyway. In fact, got himself celebrated in certain corners as a Man of the People who Tells It Like It Is.

That's free speech for you.

But apparently not for NFL players who go down on one knee instead of standing for the Star-Spangled Banner in a show of solidarity and protest against racial inequity. On this subject, the president used his own free speech rights to refer to such people with a term we'd rather not print in a family newspaper. He said they should be fired.

Free speech for me, but not for you!

Surely, like the rest of us, the president remembers learning in history class about how nonviolent dissent has pushed this country forward and shaped the America we are.

Surely he remembers images of lunch counter sit-ins, of war protests and political rallies. You don't have to agree with their point. You can be fiercely opposed to their cause. But surely he's heard the one about not liking what someone has to say and defending to the death their right to say it.

Trump called not standing "a total disrespect of everything that we stand for." But isn't the right to peacefully disagree at least part of what the troops he so strongly supports are fighting for?

The president has the right to express how he feels, even if what he feels is that other people don't have a right to express how they feel.

But is picking this particular fight right now what you want from a president who has things like health care, North Korea and Russia meddling in our elections to think about? Is this fanning the flames in hopes of distracting us?

Here's another question: Could he have said he disagreed with what the players were doing but respected that other opinions exist? The answer is: Only if he actually did.

Sometimes, pushback can surprise you. A whole lot of players, not to mention coaches, staffers and some very rich owners, made a public show of arm-in-arm solidarity against the president's words against peaceful dissent.

Free speech meant that much.

And you might think about checking your President Everyman credentials when Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the wildly popular NASCAR driver — steps up on Twitter about the right of all Americans to peacefully protest. He even threw in a quote from President John F. Kennedy, the one that says those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

There's some free speech worth listening to.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]