Backlash on intolerant views of NFL player and Clippers owner could soon impact us all.

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You knew someone was going to behave badly.

When Michael Sam became the first openly gay man to be drafted in the NFL, ESPN cut to the celebration, which included Sam kissing his boyfriend. No surprise there — draftees often kiss their loved ones.

Then Miami defensive back Don Jones decided to share his insights on the kiss. "OMG" and "horrible," he tweeted. Again, no shock. There's a reason no player has come out until now.

Then came the real surprise: The Miami Dolphins fined and suspended Jones for his tweets and ordered him to go to a training program for "education."

Of course, this comes on the heels of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling being banned for life and fined $2.5 million by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for racially offensive remarks made in a surreptitiously recorded private conversation.

For both men, free speech has proved costly, though there has been no violation of their constitutional rights.

The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law; there's no mention of powerful pro sports franchises. Sterling was a member of an elite club of millionaires who own NBA franchises and can make their own rules. Jones has a contract with the Dolphins, which presumably bars comments that hurt the marketing or financial welfare of the team.

Crossing a line?

Even so, the two incidents raise important questions. Have businesses become so sensitive to the perception of intolerance that they're going to punish people for their beliefs? Are employees now to be counseled because they have a "thinking problem"?

Sterling's remarks were ignorant and hateful, but they were private. The NBA banned him for life for not sharing the NBA's approved viewpoint.

Jones' reaction was crude but undoubtedly his honest take. Now the Dolphins are insisting he be re-educated.

VIDEO: MICHAEL SAM DETERMINED TO MAKE RAMS

Michael Sam answers questions about being the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team and his future with the Rams.

The backlash against intolerant views is not limited to sports franchises. Last month, Mozilla co-founder CEO Brendan Eich resigned under public pressure after it was revealed that he had donated $1,000 six years ago to the Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in California.

In 2008, Eich was not exactly an outlier. He joined 7,001,083 of his fellow Californians in voting for the successful measure, which was later struck down in federal court. Apparently, there's no statute of limitations on unpopular political stances.

These latest NBA and NFL controversies feel different, though. These are powerful sports monopolies and teams that are so determined to look progressive and bias-free that they'll hammer anyone who puts a dent in that image.

What if an NFL player had been a bit more circumspect, tweeting, "Congrats to Michael Sam, but the idea of two men in a romantic relationship offends my deepest religious beliefs"? Would the Dolphins have suspended him for sharing his faith? Or was "OMG" just not eloquent enough?

Sympathy in short supply

There's little sympathy for Sterling or Jones. After all, these are wealthy and powerful figures. Why should we care if they get pilloried for their unpalatable views?

We should care because it's a dangerous and chilling practice at odds with cherished rights of privacy and free speech. Are we embracing a new "Sterling rule" under which comments made in private to friends or family members are grounds for losing your livelihood? How long before a CPA gets called in for an unfortunate joke among friends at a neighborhood party? Does a teacher get dismissed for crude remarks made with buddies over a beer?

It's not at all far-fetched. In the State of the First Amendment survey conducted by the First Amendment Center in 2010, 53% of respondents said you shouldn't be allowed to say anything that might offend someone of another race. Forty-five percent said you should be barred from remarks that might offend someone of another religion.

But it's not limits on free speech that have led to real social progress. True understanding comes from the free and open exchange of ideas and exposure to others who are different from you. Telling someone that there are economic and professional consequences for intolerant personal views doesn't change or enlighten him. It just reinforces the intolerance.

Ken Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.

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