No Football In Kansas

It was a lame joke. It was racist. It was offensive. And to add insult to injury, it had already been done before, and so wasn’t even novel. But Kansas State University student Jaden McNeil made it anyway.

Get it? George Floyd was murdered, which was the only way to keep a black man from using drugs. Sick burn, Jaden, who describes himself as the founder and president of America First Students. What’s a state university to do with such a blithering asshole?

University officials have said they are exploring their options for action after the tweet. University President Richard Myers said Friday that “divisive statements do not represent for the values of our university.”

The problem is that the options available are limited. This is a public university and cannot, as such, deny this dumb kid his right to make a bad joke. The First Amendment applies, and despite all the important people on twitter explaining that the hate speech isn’t free speech, it is. Even if you use 10,000 words to explain why this was the most racist, most offensive, stupidest joke ever, it’s still protected speech. Indeed, there was once an organization that would fight for civil rights and stand up for the speaker of the worst possible words. Unfortunately, it no longer exists, although the name was bought out at a moral bankruptcy sale.

But the university’s limits aren’t of much concern to the football team.

Kansas State football players say they will boycott all team activities until administrators create a policy that would allow a student to be expelled for “openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions.”

It would be a perfectly fine demand, but for the fact that it’s legally impossible to accomplish.

“We are demanding that Kansas State University put a policy in place that allows a student to be dismissed for displaying openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions toward a student or groups of students,” the players said in the letter they posted. “We have resolved that we cannot play, practice or meet until these demands are heard and actions taken. We love Kansas State, but we must stand together and protect all students moving forward.”

In a sense, it’s a lot like civil disobedience. They feel strongly enough about their convictions to pay the price, in this case not having a football team, if and when there might be football again given that team activities have been suspended due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Their motives are commendable. Their willingness to suffer the consequences are principled.

Their threat, however, was foolish. It’s no more lawful for Kansas State to expel McNeil (or any other miscreant who says such things) for his exercise of free speech, even if it is racist and disrespectful. Curiously, the team included the word “threatening” in its demand, which the words are not. Rather, the chaos theory view of hate speech is that any words deemed bad make others “feel unsafe,” which is more about other students’ supposed feelings than the words. That’s just not how words work.

Nor are the football players, nor anyone else at Kansas State, without an alternative recourse to expulsion should a student utter words that offend them. Shun the kid. Call him an insulting name. Sit next to him in class with halitosis and discuss one’s world view. At length. Better still, explain why his words were wrong, racist and offensive.

The football coach might recognize the quandary his team created by its demand.

Late Sunday, coach Chris Klieman tweeted his support: “Racism is NOT welcome at KSTATE now or in the future. … I am excited to help every player unite for the solution NOW, so that that we can come together stronger than ever. Black Lives Matter.”

Coach Klieman was right to back his team in general, and was right to support the position that “racism is NOT welcome at KSTATE.” But he also slipped in an opening, to help his team “unite for the solution NOW” (he’s a football coach, so he can be forgiven his use of ALL CAPS) rather than parrot their demand for expulsion.

Do the members of the football team really want to sit out their season? Do they want to back off their demand and look as if they’ve lost the battle over racism, or worse, given up? Whoever came up with the idea that to demand a very specific solution, expulsion, made a tactical mistake.

As these are college students, it’s unsurprising that they were unfamiliar with the scope of the First Amendment, with the legal duties of KSTATE to adhere to its students’ free speech rights. It’s also unsurprising, given the way in which students and too many of their professors discuss speech that they were unaware of the fact that hate speech, whatever they believe it to be, is free speech.

Is there anything to be done by Kansas State to address the outrage caused by McNeil’s twit? Probably not, or at least not lawfully. Maybe the college will expel him and take the hit in a subsequent lawsuit. That too smacks of civil disobedience, although there is no virtue to be found in a public institution deliberately violating the Constitution.

Or, it can tell the football players that it’s in complete agreement with their cause, their views and their feelings, so football will be canceled at Kansas this year. Who wins?

15 thoughts on “No Football In Kansas

  1. ToaKraka

    I strongly disagree with the idea that this joke is racist. Exactly the same joke could be made about any person known to be (or to have been) a habitual drug user, regardless of race–say, Rob Ford, Snoop Dogg, or Stephen King–and we know that this person was a habitual drug user.

    An autopsy showed that drugs were in Floyd’s blood at the time of his death, and one news article quotes an expert who says the level of fentanyl was high enough that it “could kill someone who has not used the drug in the past”. The joke isn’t based on a racist assumption that all blacks are habitual drug users; rather, we have evidence strongly suggesting (though admittedly not definitively showing) that this specific person was a habitual drug user.

    1. SHG Post author

      Glad we got this out of the way up front. Someone was bound to argue this. Now it’s done. Let’s move on.

      1. Solon

        My reaction was similar to ToaKraka and, although it is not the focus of your piece, it does, maybe, provide an out to the football team. Their reaction appears to be based solely on the apparent racial motivation of the tweet, not its obvious stupidity and thoughtlessness. As you’ve pointed out, the football team is in an untenable situation, insisting that the University do something it cannot, or they will no do do something they enjoy doing. But if at least some of them can be convinced that the tweet was not racist (admittedly well nigh impossible given the opportunity to signal their virtue if they continue to insist the tweet is racist, and it is difficult to imagine many college students giving up so easy an opportunity), then they might be able to back out of that situation while saving some face.

        1. SHG Post author

          One of the most problematic aspects of “racism” at the moment is that it’s not open for discussion. You make a good point, that it maybe it wasn’t racist but just stupid. Unfortunately, once something is tagged as racist, can it ever be untagged?

          1. KP

            Once we’re all tagged as racist, does it matter? The sooner the better, then we can get over the word and realise that just using it is racist in the way it separates us based on race. A true non-racist would never use the word, all people would look the same.

            Even calling that tweet racist is racist in itself. It carries an assumption that because he was a drug user he must be black.

            If the football team never play another game… meh, maybe they’ll get some real education that will help America be great again!

  2. MelK

    Sorry, I find it hard to applaud the stance of the football team – at this time. In theory, it’s fine. It’s principled. But right now, it is a meaningless commitment to a sacrifice that had already been scheduled. Nice words, but bought at clearance.

    1. SHG Post author

      I assume the time will soon come (they’re supposed to start practicing against in July) to put up or shut up.

  3. B. McLeod

    This is a useful development, in that COVID-19 cases are apparently spiking in Kansas too. Canceling football is a good thing all around.

    Ironically, Twitter subsequently removed the mocking comment as “glorifying violence.” If the passionate athletes had not gone international on the World Wide Web with their moronic demands to suppress the civil rights of other students, the comment would have died in obscurity. But, as is, they made sure the whole world saw it. Not the sharpest tools in the shed. They should probably get busy landing new athletic scholarships at a private school that can meet their demands. It could be the best year ever for Southern Methodist.

  4. Paul

    The players will have to take a “L” as in loss on this one.

    Life is a big game and to succeed, you need to know the rules and letting emotions cloud your judgment usually leads to a defeat.

    But, I commend any of the players who willingly give up their scholarships and possible NFL futures over a few words of protected speech.

    I get a feeling that number will be zero.

    1. SHG Post author

      Excellent point about scholarships. Most won’t play for the NFL, but money is a big motivator.

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