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‘These are not your usual employees’: Attorney deciphers law, political protests, employees’ rights

Mitch Margo is also the author of “Black Hearts White Minds,” a novel set in 1964.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Mitch Margo is also the author of “Black Hearts White Minds,” a novel set in 1964.";s:

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh spoke with attorney Mitch Margo, the Missouri Valley Conference’s general counsel, about the legal aspects of employer policies regarding protests, especially by team sports players, and the racial implications of them.

“I think that each side [including employers and employees] has certain legal issues in their favor,” Margo said. “I certainly come down on the side of players’ rights to make a political statement, but this is not your usual employer-employee relationship, Don.”

Margo went on to explain why a situation involving NFL players is unique when it comes to the law.

“Most of the time, an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason or no reason, they’re called at-will employees. But these are not your usual employees,” Margo remarked. “The NFL is made up of very powerful owners and a very powerful players’ union, and they have what’s called the collective bargaining agreement where they’ve agreed to abide by their own rules, not by the general rules that might guide state employment.”

In regards to the collective bargaining agreement between employers and their employees, which in this case is NFL players, Margo continued:

“It’s a very long complicated document, but in essence in this particular situation, what it says is that the players’ union bargaining on behalf of the players, and the owners agree that when they make decisions involving employment, payment and other parts of the NFL players’ employment with the NFL, that they’ll negotiate and they’ll either abide by the rules that they have in place, and if they get to something that isn’t necessarily covered by one of the rules they have in place, they’ll negotiate to try and figure out a resolution, and that’s where we are at right now.”

Marsh made note of the difference between NFL and other employers, then pressing Margo on the matter.

“Generally, we have state law, and in the state of Missouri, everybody is an at-will employee, meaning they are employed at the will of the employer unless they’ve reached some other agreement, they have a contract that is different,” Margo described. “The boss can fire an employee for any reason or no reason with some exceptions. You can’t fire someone because [of their race] or because [of their age]. But other than that, that’s the major difference between a regular company and an NFL kind of company where they’ve agreed to collectively bargain.”

While discussing the issue of protesting during the national anthem, many assume the first amendment should intervene, however, Margo clarified why it does not.

“The first amendment does not come into this,” he said. “It’s appealing to think that the first amendment says, ‘I can speak anytime I want and you can’t do anything about it and there are no ramifications,’ but that’s not the first amendment. The first amendment says the government cannot prevent you from speaking.”

This notion brought up a point that Margo couldn’t ignore: whether or not the government is involved in prohibiting political demonstrations in some publicly-funded spaces.

“There’s a little inkling that the government may be involved when you’re talking about the speech taking place in a stadium that’s been publicly financed, or in this case a little bit more if you’re talking about the Green Bay Packers because that is a public company, but really it’s just a tiny little inkling of government involvement, and so the first amendment is not involved here.”

In addition to being an attorney focused on sports issues, Margo is also the author of "Black Hearts White Minds,” the 1964 story of an New York U.S. attorney who lies to get transferred to Alabama to enforce the Civil Rights Act and “has no clue what he’s getting himself into in the segregated South.”

“In 1964, I was 9 years old. I grew up in New York, and I missed the Civil Rights Movement,” Margo said. “It was always something that interested me and when it came time that I was able to sit down and write a novel, which is something I always wanted to do, I decided I wanted to set it in the South, in 1964, so that I could both learn about it and impart that knowledge to others.”

Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.