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Trump’s reaction to the NFL protests shows how he fights the culture war

As black athletes took a knee, Trump seized an opportunity to weaponize patriotism.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After the last play is run and the lights go off in Minneapolis’s US Bank Stadium, the end of the 52nd Super Bowl on Sunday night will mark the conclusion of a football season dominated by coverage of kneeling football players. The kneeling protests, which sought to draw attention to police violence and racial injustice in America, were condemned by the president, activating a broader debate about race and patriotism in America and serving as a key example of President Donald Trump’s ability to influence public opinion.

Started by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the summer of 2016, the kneeling protests have been controversial from the start, initially drawing criticism from those who viewed Kaepernick’s action as being offensive to the military. (Kaepernick actually shifted the form of his protest from sitting during the anthem to kneeling in an effort to curtail this line of critique. And several veterans openly supported his protests.)

As other players have joined in, the protests have taken on a new dimension over the past few months as President Trump has injected his opinions about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem into the public conversation. During a rally in Alabama for then-Sen. Luther Strange, Trump said any player protesting was a “son of a bitch” that should immediately be removed from the field for disrespecting the flag, the anthem, and the military — and, by extension, America.

Trump has long displayed more comfort discussing the symbols of American power over the complexities of American politics, so that he chose this issue to spotlight is no surprise. The NFL is one of the most successful sports leagues in the country, and, depending on the poll you look at, football has consistently been the most popular sport in the United States for somewhere between 30 and 50 years. The sport continues to see strong support from the conservative Americans who make up the core of Trump’s political base. As one Reuters article put it in 2014, “The triumph of the NFL is a tribute to the triumph of American conservatism.”

But popularity among sports fans alone does not explain football’s cultural dominance. In an article for the Atlantic last year, journalist Vann Newkirk argued that football served as a type of religious exercise for most of the country. “Football has supplanted religion even well beyond the South now, but the replacement has been seamless because football’s a lot like church,” Newkirk wrote. “As a civic religion, football has married Max Weber’s protestantische Ethik, American capitalism, the worship of great men, and the individual narratives of sacrifice and superhuman feats.”

While NFL officials often argue that football is apolitical, it was the prominence of the sport and the league’s ongoing efforts to tie itself to patriotism in the American consciousness that made it easy for President Trump to wield patriotism as a way of dismissing those involved in the kneeling protest.

In doing so, Trump managed to change the subject by casting protesting NFL players — the majority of whom are black; all of whom were drawing explicit attention to racial inequality — as a danger to the ideals of America. It was a strategy that has come to define the Trump era.

The NFL protests are about race. But once Trump reframed the issue as being about patriotism, public opinion followed.

If football is a civic religion, patriotism has long been part of its sermons. The bonds between professional sports and the national anthem date back to World War II when, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, military symbolism in sports served as a way of connecting civilians to the war effort.

The NFL is well aware of this history, and uses corporate partnerships and connections to the Department of Defense to better position itself as “America’s sport” through the use of patriotic symbolism and military spectacle. Over time, jet flyovers, salutes to the troops, and teary on-field reunions between military families have all become reliable parts of NFL games.

Trump’s framing of the NFL protests as being inherently unpatriotic sought to take advantage of this. His critiques of the NFL protests date back to his time on the campaign trail in August 2016 when, speaking of the early days of Kaepernick’s protests, he said that if the athlete was truly upset, he “should find a country that works better for him.”

Kaepernick, who had previously called the then-presidential candidate “openly racist,” responded a few weeks later. “It’s a very ignorant statement that if you don’t agree with what’s going on here, if you want justice, liberty and freedom for all, then you should leave the country,” Kaepernick said. “He always says ‘Make America Great Again.’ Well, it’s never been great for people of color.”

Trump wasn’t the first to link patriotism to Kaepernick’s protest; it was a question that regularly circulated in 2016 as sports commentators, pundits, and fans debated whether Kaepernick’s action disrespected the military.

Opinion polls just a few months into the season found a significant racial split in how the protests were perceived, with the majority of white Americans registering disapproval. But Trump presented the bluntest — and most successful — argument against the protests when he escalated his attacks on Kaepernick and other kneeling athletes last September, framing their protest against racial injustice as an attack on the anthem, and America itself.

Activity in the weeks following Trump’s comments showed just how much his argument shifted the focus of the protests. The Sunday immediately following the Alabama rally, the Associated Press noted that “more than 130 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance during early games.”

NFL owners who donated to Trump’s campaign or inaugural efforts, like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, knelt alongside their players or linked arms with them on the football field. Press releases and team statements about the events of that day came out, highlighting themes like “solidarity” and “unity” rather than racial inequality and injustice. That Trump himself expressed satisfaction with many of the protests that day was telling.

While NFL players and owners touted the show of unity that Sunday, public opinion had already begun to shift, with perception of the protests being shaped by the questions of free speech and patriotism that Trump had raised. A Reuters poll taken shortly after the big weekend of protests found that 82 percent of people who identified as Democrats said football owners should not fire players who kneel during the national anthem. Just 29 percent of Republicans said the same.

The division was even more pronounced among Trump voters. In late September, a Morning Consult poll of 5,000 adults found that “the NFL’s net favorability has dropped from 30% on September 21 to 17% on September 28,” a drop largely fueled by a declining favorability from Trump supporters.

And, according to an October poll from Morning Consult, over the course of three weeks, the share of Trump voters saying they viewed the NFL unfavorably spiked from around 20 percent to around 60 percent. Notably, this was also the same time that some NFL owners, to Trump’s delight, began threatening to penalize players who continued to protest.

The patriotism argument overwhelmed the conversation, prompting a debate about black protest and black patriotism

Trump’s framing of the NFL protests as unpatriotic didn’t just skew public opinion among his supporters. It also prompted a conversation about how black Americans should interact with American symbols when protesting injustice, a thorny question that involves matters of respectability, politics, and optics.

As criticisms of the NFL mounted, it became common to see supporters and opponents of the kneeling players alike arguing that the protests had chosen a method that was too polarizing. Both sides repeatedly compared the NFL protests to the demonstrations of the civil rights era to make this point. Some argued the NFL protests, in involving the national anthem, had created an image that was all too easy to critique and dismiss, and one that made it easy for opponents like Trump to position as being anti-American.

An October column from New York Times columnist David Leonhardt serves as a good example of this. In the piece, which ran online with the headline “The Choice Between Kneeling and Winning,” Leonhardt argues, “The kneeling argument needlessly alienates persuadable people, and it’s one the athletes don’t need.”

Leonhardt never calls the kneeling players unpatriotic, but he still suggests that the protest loses some of its power by occurring in the presence of the flag and the anthem. He juxtaposes the NFL protests with the civil rights movement, noting that figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis aligned the civil rights movement “with the symbols and ideals of America,” an action that, in Leonhardt’s view, made the movement more effective.

It’s an argument that overlooks several factors (King’s recurring criticism of American imperialism and the military, for one). But in the context of the NFL protests, specifically, it suggests that public opinion would shift immediately if the anthem and flag disappeared. (That one team this fall was booed even before the anthem was played indicates that this might not be the case.)

Leonhardt’s argument also presents an understanding of the trajectory and popularity of the civil rights movement that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained for the Atlantic, is far less complicated than the reality: Protest has never really been popular. “This might be damning if not for the fact that the very civil-rights movement Leonhardt cites was generally thought to be equally, if not more, inappropriate,” Coates adds, pointing to polls showing low levels of support for King and the movement while it was active in the 1960s.

In his NFL critique, Trump found a potent formula

At the end of the fall, the NFL Players Coalition, an activist athlete group, said that it reached an agreement with the league that would see nearly $100 million donated to support various community and social justice initiatives.

The deal was seen by some as the NFL’s way of using money to curb the protests, a belief furthered by the fact that some members of the Players Coalition began standing during the anthem around the time that the deal was announced. While other players, like Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, have said that they would continue the kneeling protest, it seemed that much of the conversation about race and patriotism would end as the NFL protests receded.

Meanwhile, Trump has feuded with ESPN anchor Jemele Hill and NBA player Steph Curry. His suggestion that black UCLA players were “ungrateful” because they did not thank him specifically after their release from house arrest in China further illustrates how the president often seems to perceive personal slights as being un-American when expressed by a person of color, and how he often wields patriotism as a cudgel.

Trump knows how to dominate a national conversation. It’s why, when speaking of a young boy who works to honor fallen veterans at last week’s State of the Union, Trump couldn’t resist swiping at the protests again — this time subtly comparing the boy’s actions to those who kneeled during the season. By now it’s undeniable the president has figured out that his power rests in his ability to shape what America talks about.

Football is only one part of American life, but it’s also an emotional barometer for large swaths of the country because of how entangled it is with patriotism, the military, and the citizenry. As the NFL goes, so goes America. This season might be over, but its value to Trump’s culture war will continue.