by Dale Reeves
Recently at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, some Bengals fans poked fun at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. They were upset with the NFL ruling earlier in the week that the fate of a Wild Card matchup would be left in the hands of a coin flip if the Bengals had lost the last regular season game to the Baltimore Ravens. One of the signs pictured Goodell wearing a clown nose, and another displayed the phrase, “NFL, you won’t stop us.” According to witnesses, the NFL made the Bengals fans take down the signs that were critical of Goodell and the NFL.
Cincy fans weren’t the only ones who poked fun at the league commissioner on Sunday. Bengals cornerback Eli Apple held up a massive coin with Goodell’s face on it sporting a clown nose. Fortunately, the Bengals won that game against the Ravens, so they got to host them for the first-round playoff game, which the Bengals also won—thanks to the now famous fumble, scoop, and 98-yard dash by defensive end Sam Hubbard.
Freedom of Speech or Infringement of Rights?
This begs the question, “Should the NFL and other sports institutions be allowed to censor signs that are displayed at sporting events?” Is this a freedom of speech issue, a case of common courtesy, or more? If sports organizations stifle the speech, it could be used as justification to suppress speech in other sectors. But if they welcome dissent, it might set the tone for other institutions. Many people argue that owners, players, and fans do not have an unmitigated right to free speech on public property. As a private enterprise, the organization has the right to restrict what employees say and customers do on their premises.
And, this situation doesn’t just happen in professional sports. It happens at college sporting events as well. Just over a week ago, it happened in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. The UK basketball team began this season with a ranking of #4 in the country, but they have underperformed, losing to several teams by a double-digit margin. Many fans of Big Blue Nation and the media have been very critical of coach John Calipari. During the first half of the UK-South Carolina basketball game (a game which UK lost), a spectator seated near the court held up a sign for several minutes that said, “Please go to Texas,” referring to speculation about Calipari being a candidate to coach the Longhorns. Security arrived following complaints from other fans and they gave the man the choice of putting the sign away or leaving. He chose to leave.
As we look at the larger landscape in America, there are many things that have been protected by the First Amendment, things way worse than criticizing sports decisions or bad athletic performances. All kinds of perversion and obscenities exist in our culture that go against God’s idea of freedom for the human race. There have been more than 870 rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts involving First Amendment freedoms from 1804 to the present. And, there will be many more discussions and court cases involving our First Amendment rights—what is protected and what is not protected.
Redeeming the Culture
In our imperfect world, people have free will and will continue to express themselves in all kinds of ways. Some of these ways need to be restricted for the protection of others. Our desire should be for a culture in which people are free to express themselves, but a culture that is redemptive, not destructive. God has given the followers of Christ the onus to redeem culture, to bring about healing and peace wherever we can. His Word clearly instructs us with these principles:
“Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”
—Romans 12:17, 18, NLT
“Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
—Ephesians 4:15, NIV
“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”
—Ephesians 4:29, NLT
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
—Colossians 4:6, ESV
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
—1 Peter 2;16, 17, ESV
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”
—1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV
Thirty years ago, the Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline belted out these lyrics in their song, “Don’t Censor Me”:
“I’m the salt of the Earth, a city on a hill,
My light’s twice as bright, I’m gonna show you something real,
Don’t (don’t) don’t (don’t) don’t (don’t), don’t censor me.”
That is what we are called to do, to impact culture by shining a light for Christ as bright as we can, and in so doing, some will come along with us and not spend their time criticizing others, but rather praising our heavenly Father.
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”
—Matthew 5:14-16, NLT