Jack Del Rio and the true cost of speech

·4-min read

Give the Washington football organization credit: It always finds a creative new way to screw up.

‌This time around, it’s an ugly collision of fact, opinion and punishment. Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders, spent several days last week expounding on the relative differences between the riots that erupted during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the riot that erupted in and around the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

‌It will not surprise you to learn that a professional football coach did not have the most nuanced grasp of a charged, complex political moment in our nation’s history. It will also not surprise you to learn that a professional football organization responded in precisely the wrong way.

‌"A simple question,” Del Rio said on June 8. “Why are we not looking into [the riots at the protests], if we're going to talk about [the Capitol riot]. Why are we not looking into those things? … I see images on the TV, people's livelihoods are being destroyed, businesses are being burned down, no problem. And then we have a dust-up at the Capitol, nothing burned down, and we're going to make that a major deal."

‌Del Rio’s tweets and comments were the sort of standard-issue “I’m just asking questions” superficial whataboutism that plagues our entire national discourse — if my side has done something bad, your side has done something worse, why aren’t we focusing on X instead of Y, and around and around. Any reasonable points get lost in the rush to own the other side.

‌On one hand, Del Rio was highlighting an undeniably tragic element of the riots that occurred during the BLM protests, the lost lives and ruined livelihoods. On the other, he’s comparing apples to motor oil by focusing only on the outcome of that and Jan. 6, and not the intent.

‌The topic isn’t the real issue here; it’s the response. Put aside what Del Rio said, and focus on what happened after he said it.

‌Del Rio suffered reputational consequences, which is appropriate. Any time you say something that others find objectionable, they’re going to find you objectionable too. Del Rio also suffered some substantial financial consequences, and that’s where this gets tricky.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Commanders head coach Ron Rivera levied a $100,000 fine against Del Rio, a hefty sum for listing facts and asking questions — however inartfully expressed they may have been — about those facts.

‌Granted, part of the motivation behind the fine is that Washington is trying to establish a new stadium within a few miles of the Capitol, and Del Rio’s offhand comments render the team even more toxic than it already is. But Rivera framed the fine in political terms, and that’s where the tree limb thins out.

‌Rivera said Tuesday that this isn’t a free speech issue, and he’s right. One more time: The First Amendment protects your right to speech free from government intervention; it doesn’t protect you from consequences of that speech. The federal government isn’t coming for Jack Del Rio. (Although if ever a football team was crying out for federal intervention …)

‌The people celebrating the fine and calling for Del Rio’s job may want to think long and hard about the precedent they’re establishing here, trying to get someone fired for a disagreeable political statement. If you think Del Rio should go, are you sure you’ve never said anything in the past that would now reflect badly on you? Are you really sure? Would you bet your career on it?

‌Del Rio’s not blameless here, either. “Just asking questions” is only a defense if you’re willing to listen to the answers to those questions, and Del Rio’s apparent inability, after 18 months, to recognize the gravity of Jan. 6 suggests he’s not much interested in hearing anything that contradicts what he already believes.

We can spin out hypotheticals for another three hours. Why don’t we see punishment for political views from the left? What if Del Rio loses the locker room? What if his speech normalizes anti-BLM sentiment? That's grandstanding, not discussing. When we frame the questions ourselves, we give ourselves the luxury of setting up answers we want to hear. Dealing in the facts, and facts alone, leads us from Del Rio’s words to a chilling place.

‌Punishment enforces only silence. If your goal is truly to change people’s minds, not just shut them down, you don’t do that by firing them, hammering them with six-figure fines or scalding their name on social media. You change their minds by getting them to see a different point of view than their own, to get out of the little nest of social media and reinforced half-truths that we all occupy.

‌Rather than fine Del Rio, the Commanders could have sat him down with a Capitol police officer or 20 who could explain exactly why the riots were a whole lot more than a “dust-up,” regardless of the relative levels of property damage. The team could have listened to his perspective as well. That’s how we reach common ground … which, I know, is a foreign and unwanted concept now.

‌Piercing bubbles. Discussing divergent points of view. Imagine that.


Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.