On the job

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David Steele has a good column today about the decision of Derrick Rose and several other athletes this weekend to sport t-shirts with the phrase “I can’t breathe” on them, in recognition of the choking death of Eric Garner in July and the decision last week not to indict the cop who choked him.

In response to the standard line that athletes should just “shut up and play,” Steele writes:

What these NFL players are doing, though, is continuing a time-honored history, one that goes back to the Alis, the Smiths and Carloses, the Jim Browns and Bill Russells of a past era. All were athletes who the public believes belong in the tiniest of boxes. You’re there to play ball, they’re told, and you’re there to entertain us, and most important, when it’s time for you to disappear for a week, you do it immediately, until we’re ready to see you again.

As Steele rightly notes, we see public displays of ideology on the field all the time, often in the form of military flyovers and the like. Such demonstrations of politics typically pass without comment, though. And when an announcer like Thom Brenaman says, as he frequently does, that America is the “greatest country in the world” (is that according to AP, or UPI?), virtually no one raises hackles about “politicizing” a sports broadcast. On the other hand, when a Bob Costas expresses views about, say, gun control, all hell breaks loose. And likewise when Michael Sam actually dares kiss his boyfriend on television, as if no other athlete has ever before engaged in a public display of affection.

So good for the recent spate of athletes who actually care about the wider world and are willing to use their platforms to express those concerns, even at the risk of a drawing a hissy fit from an indignant police department, stuck-in-the-mud media or fans more generally.

There is, of course an inescapably racial inflection to the debate about whether athletes have a “right” to speak up in public, when they’re going about their jobs.

But there is also something larger – a widespread and frankly baffling notion common among Americans that the workplace is something like a rights-free zone – indeed, dare I say, an America-free zone. It’s as if the bill of rights and all of the constitutional protections most Americans believe themselves to be entitled to, somehow no longer obtain when we’re on the job. Instead, those rights are trumped by the right of the “boss,” the owner, to do as he or she sees fit, except in the most egregious cases. The general hostility that labor unions face in America reflects, in part, this strikingly dichotomized thinking about rights in the workplace versus those we expect to have outside of it.

On this score, the political theorist Corey Robin has written about the “secret history of the bathroom break.”

Robin, from 2002:

Today’s workplace can sometimes seem like a battlefield of the bladder. On the one side are workers who wanna go when they gotta go; on the other are employers who want to stop them, sometimes for hours on end. Just this past month, a Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Clermont, Ky., was forced to drop its strict bathroom-break policies after the plant’s union focused negative international attention – from ABC News to Australia – on Jim Beam and its parent company, Fortune Brands, Inc. According to union officials, managers kept computer spreadsheets monitoring employee use of the bathroom, and 45 employees were disciplined for heeding nature’s call outside company-approved breaks. Female workers were even told to report the beginning of their menstrual cycles to the human resources department, said one union leader.
Especially among those deemed “blue collar,” the premise that workers are really little more than property to be deployed as their overseers see fit, is a widely accepted norm. It’s a pretty easy jump from there to “shut up and play.”
You certainly don’t have to agree with *what* this or that athlete has to say about public affairs. But you’re on much shakier ground insisting that the field of play is a rights-free zone.
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