President Donald Trump has done something no one else could do until now. He has united the National Football League around the National Anthem protest of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Friday, Trump went on a tirade aimed at Kaepernick and other professional athletes who have been protesting police violence by kneeling during the National Anthem or supporting those kneeling.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now, out. He's fired. He's fired!’” said Trump at an Alabama rally for Senate candidate Luther Strange.
Trump went on to condemn recent NFL rules aimed at reducing head trauma. “Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife's so proud of him. They're ruining the game! They're ruining the game.”
The outrage and condemnation of Trump’s remarks were swift and came from all quarters. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued an official statement condemning Trump’s Alabama speech. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” it reads.
Trump then upped the ante, calling for a boycott of pro football with this tweet: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
A Nation Watches
By Sunday, when many in the nation gather around their televisions for the weekly ritual of watching football, NFL players, coaches, and owners were united in open defiance of Trump. Before the weekend, only half a dozen or so players had chosen to kneel during the National Anthem, and Kaepernick — the originator of these protests — was sidelined, out of work when no team signed him for the 2017 season.
On Sunday, nearly the whole league - including owners and coaches - was united in protest and solidarity. Dozens of players were kneeling, other standing in support. The first public manifestation of dissent took place before the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens in London.
Even Trump supporters, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who contributed $1 million to his inauguration ceremony, condemned his comments.
Large numbers of players and staff from both teams knelt during the anthem while others stood with their arms interlocked. Then in game after game, players from every NFL team took a knee. The league was united. Because the protests started in London, they continued in front of the eyes of the nation for eleven hours.
This would have been impossible even a week ago, when the kneeling protests were still highly controversial. In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, an African-American quarterback then with San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling in silent protest of police killings in the U.S., he quickly became a polarizing figure.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," said Kaepernick at the time.
Kaepernick drew criticism from some fans and conservative pundits, who accused him of disrespecting the police, the flag or people in military service - or some combination of all three. He also drew praise and support of many African Americans and activists for shining a light on the national crisis of racism and criminalization.
Now Trump, waving his magic wand of hate, has turned the whole situation around, and literally brought the NFL to its knees.
A Total Fumble?
So will Trump's fumble change the game? It's too early to tell.
Trump’s mocking of pro ball players who are quietly protesting before game time is not new. Attacks on Kaepernick and other protesting players is a common thread on rightwing blogs and news channels. As a voracious consumer of television, Trump certainly knew that attacks on NFL protesters would be red meat for a section of his base. And he was betting that millions more would join them and take the bait.
Football remains a hugely popular sport. Over 17 million people attended games in the 2016 season. Despite Trump’s false claim that NFL ratings are way down because of the rule changes, more than 24 million watch “Sunday Night Football” each week, and games are broadcast almost every night of the week.
It is yet another incident where Trump’s seemingly hasty remarks spark controversy and polarize, rather than unite, the country. Broad sections of people are horrified by Trump’s tone and language. But a significant section of his base applauded his sentiments even if they might not agree with his choice of language.
It is not clear how the NFL will fare as it faces dueling boycotts, concussion controversies and Presidential rants. It is also not clear if the current moment of NFL upsurge means Colin Kaepernick will get hired again. Will this usher in a new era of political awareness in sports, or greater support for civil liberties? It is too early to say.
But Donald Trump, who has gone practically unscathed through one scandal after another, may have gone too far when he took on the country’s favorite sport.