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UB audience told free speech issues in sports increasingly reflect those in society

It was a packed house in 10 Capen Hall on Wednesday for the first Difficult Conversation of the 2017-18 academic year. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published October 19, 2017

For more information about UB's commitment to equity and inclusion, visit the Office of Inclusive Excellence.

“Sports are a microcosm of our society.”
Nellie Drew, adjunct professor
School of Law

Issues of free speech and freedom of expression in sports are representative of those in our greater society, UB faculty, administrators and student-athletes were told on Wednesday during an open conversation on the subject in Capen Hall.  

“Sports, increasingly, are not just two groups of athletes competing on a field,” said Teri Miller, vice provost for inclusive excellence. “There are, increasingly, many other issues that cloud what is going on beyond the competition.”

The swirl of issues surrounding freedom of expression in sports, controversial mascots and use of culturally derogatory language were all part of “Taking a Knee and Other Issues of Speech and Expression in Sports,” the first session of the academic year in the Difficult Conversation series.

The series, begun in 2016, aims to bring faculty, staff and students together for constructive conversations about provocative issues affecting the nation in order to gain a better understanding of the issues and different points of view.

Law professor and sports law expert Nellie Drew was one of two co-moderators for the “Taking a Knee and Other Issues of Speech and Expression in Sports” discussion. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“Sports are a microcosm of our society,” Nellie Drew, adjunct professor in the School of Law, expert on sports law and one of two moderators for the event, told the group.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of expression in sports was, at one point, a small part of my syllabus,” Drew said.

“It has now become an issue of major importance to all of us.”

Law student Michael L. Schwartz, another panel member, said NFL players’ freedom of speech expressed as a protest for racial equality grew into a larger freedom-of-expression issue once the protest was shifted toward disrespect for the flag.

Law student Michael L. Schwartz took part in the panel. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“The players have the right to express their opinions,” Schwartz said. “But the clubs are private enterprises, so players can be suspended as long as such penalties are uniformly applied to everyone. And they would probably have to have been spelled out at the start of the season.

“The recent owners meeting, where they decided not to discipline the players, was probably good for the players — in the short term,” he said. “But the owners still have the option of making that decision.”

However, actions from the state or federal government aimed at penalizing the teams financially based on disapproval of the teams allowing the players to kneel during the national anthem would be seen through a different lens.

“The players are private employees,” said Jim Jarvis, UB associate counsel and panel member. “An action by the state on the same grounds could trigger a First Amendment lawsuit.

Any action by the state or federal government to penalize teams for their players' actions could trigger a First Amendment lawsuit, said Jim Jarvis, panelist and UB associate counsel. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“Other laws could also apply if a player is being discriminated against for his views or freedom of speech actions,” he said.

Asked what this means for universities, Jarvis replied that the First Amendment does apply and a number of factors enter into a situation where a public institution made an attempt to restrict free speech.

UB student-athlete Devon Patterson, another panel member and one of six captains of the track-and-field team, told the audience that freedom of expression is important to UB student-athletes.

“It’s a big issue for us,” Patterson said. “We are always encouraged by UB Athletics administrators to express ourselves in any way we want to.

Freedom of expression is an important issue for UB student-athletes, Devon Patterson, a panelist and co-captain of the track-and-field team, told the audience. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“As student-athletes, we learn about an issue, about the context of a term, such as the ‘R word’ regarding team mascots,” he said. “What we say is ‘We shall not be divided. UB athletes will find common ground and come together.’”

Another panel member, Rhianna Rogers, emphasized the importance of context in talking about the use of charged, derogatory terms.

Panelist Rhianna Rogers, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at SUNY Empire State College, said context was important when talking about the use of charged, derogatory terms such as the "N word" and the "R word." Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“Regarding use of a term such as the ‘N word,’ you have to work across communities — you have to contextualize it,” said Rogers, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at SUNY Empire State College.

“The historical evolution of the ‘N word’ shows it was originally applied to lower classes of people. Its use toward blacks started under slavery and began from the 1840s. Then hip-hop artists appropriated it in an affectionate manner.”

Terms such as that, and the ‘R word,’ she told the group, should not be used without first establishing the context.

“It is always better to ask ‘why?’ than to make an assumption that you know,” Rogers said. “People have a modicum of knowledge, then they think they know it.”

Regarding use of the ‘R word’ and the efforts across the country to remove it as athletic team names and school mascots, panel member Donald Grinde noted that historians see the word as negative and derogatory.

“Merriam-Webster classifies this as pejorative term,” said Grinde, director of graduate studies in the Department of Transnational Studies.

Donald Grinde, professor of transnational studies, said former Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke told him back in 1975 that he didn’t think fans who bought tickets would agree to change the team's name. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“I met with [former Washington Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke in 1975, and asked him what it would take to get him to change the team name.

“He told me, ‘If you can get my fans to approve it, then I’ll do it.’ But he added that removing the name would cost him $75 million a year, so it was also about money,” he said. “He didn’t think the people who bought the tickets would agree to change the name.”

“The biggest problem we have today,” added Rogers, “is that people do not speak across cultural lines.

“There are people in your life, or social network, who feel just as strongly as you do about a particular issue, but with a different view. Contextualizing others’ use of terminology, learning how others feel and why, can lead to understanding,” she said.   

“Taking a Knee and Other Issues of Speech and Expression in Sports” was sponsored by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, School of Law and Division of Athletics. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Miller told the group that “Power, numbers, politics and money are playing out on athletics fields across the country. It is about more than mascots … this breeds resentment without understanding, and it does not do justice to these complicated issues.

“At UB, we are engaged in how, as a complicated and diverse community, we are able to come together as a university,” she said.

“The law errs on the side of as much speech as possible. And when you think about what that actually looks like, you realize the ethical lines are not always simple to find or easy to see.”

The event was sponsored by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, School of Law and Division of Athletics.

The second session of the series, which will tackle the issue of cultural appropriation, will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 in 228 Student Union.

READER COMMENT

Thank you everyone for contributing to such a successful event. I would like to give a huge shoutout to Senior Associate Athletic Director Kathy Twist, who not only served as co-moderator, but who also did all of the heavy lifting organizing this event.

 

Kathy, and her assistant, Nikki Smolinski, coordinated the fliers and the bios, arranged for the speakers and generally handled the logistics.

 

When too many of my sports law cases concern issues mishandled by collegiate athletic departments, it is so rewarding to work with Kathy and the other caring, committed people at our UB athletic department who work so hard to give our student-athletes and our community the best possible experience! Go Bulls!

 

Nellie Drew