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Donald Trump versus the NFL, explained

A master of race baiting overreaches.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Cleveland Browns stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Cleveland Browns stand and kneel during the national anthem on September 24.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Millions of Americans are facing desperate conditions in Puerto Rico, congressional Republicans are mounting a last-ditch effort to enact billions of dollars in health care cuts, and the president of the United States is spending his Monday morning tweeting about flags and NASCAR.

Nominally, the topic is President Trump’s request that NFL owners fire players who kneel or otherwise engage in silent acts of political protest during the singing of the national anthem at games. Since NFL owners rather clearly can’t do this under the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players, the whole thing makes no sense, and the stakes are essentially nonexistent.

But in a larger sense, Trump isn’t fighting to try to put a stop to NFL protests. He’s fighting for the sake of having a fight. Trump does not seem to enjoy talking about public policy, as conventionally understood, and is loath to see American politics portrayed as largely consisting of a series of concrete disagreements about various tax, budgetary, and regulatory matters. Instead, he likes the idea that politics is a zero-sum culture war — one that’s largely, though not entirely, about race — and he’s willing to push those levers however hard he needs to in order to make sure they dominate the public debate, even if doing so pushes him at times to unpopular, ridiculous, or untenable positions.

The NFL quietly blacklisted an outspoken quarterback

The underlying issue here, to the extent that there is one, is that back during the 2016 season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the pregame playing of the national anthem as an act of protest against racism and police brutality in America. This earned him acclaim in some progressive quarters but was unpopular with the NFL’s conservative-leaning fan base overall. It also prompted many rounds of somewhat tedious back-and-forth debate between left-of-center people over whether protesting patriotic rituals is a tactically or strategically sound course of action.

A handful of other players sporadically took up the cause of protesting, but Kaepernick himself was unable to secure employment in the NFL this offseason. By the numbers, he was by no means a top star, but his age and past performance certainly suggest you’d expect him to be hired at least as a backup somewhere.

NFL owners, in short, appear to have quietly blacklisted Kaepernick, presumably to try to discourage other players from using their platforms to speak out on contentious issues. The NFL’s workforce is mostly black, and the league has many black fans, but most of the audience is white, and having nonstop racialized political conflicts swirling around the sport is not good for business.

Of course, NFL owners didn’t come out and say they were blacklisting Kaepernick over his protest. The goal was to make the controversy go away — rid the league of a troublemaker, discourage others from making trouble, and get back to the lucrative business of football. But Trump has a very different business model, one that sees nonstop racialized political conflict as a winning formula.

Trump poured two buckets of gasoline on the fire

The entire Kaepernick controversy has been political from the beginning, but has also been distant from the day-to-day concerns of America’s elected officials and political pros.

Trump changed that Friday night at a rally in Alabama. He was there to support the campaign of Sen. Luther Strange, until recently the state’s attorney general, who was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Jeff Sessions’s elevation to the Cabinet. Strange is the universal pick of the Republican establishment, including Trump, but he’s being challenged by former Judge Roy Moore (yes, the guy from the 10 Commandments controversy), who is very much running on appeals to the Trump base. Perhaps in order to appeal to that base, Trump’s speech went on an extended tangent about pro football.

“You know what's hurting the game,” Trump asked, before answering himself: “when people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem.”

Drawing the rhetorical distinction between the “people like yourselves” at the overwhelmingly white rally and “those people” protesting was, needless to say, a provocative framing of the issue. And the substance of Trump’s remarks was even more so. He advised fans to boycott the NFL and speculated, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!'"

He then threw additional fuel on the fire Saturday morning by tweeting an attack on Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, which immediately kicked the whole controversy into overdrive.

Curry put Trump on weak political ground

The NBA is a lot less lucrative than the NFL, but individual NBA players are generally much better compensated than their football colleagues because there are many fewer people on an NBA team and basketball players have longer careers. The NBA fan base, though smaller, is also a lot more liberal than the NFL fan base. Analysis done a few years ago by Mike Shannon and Will Feltus of Scarborough Research shows that the WNBA has the most Democratic-voting fans of any sport, followed by the NBA, while NFL football is more Republican-leaning than the overall population. (College football is more conservative than pro football.)

Consequently, the pushback against Trump’s attack on Curry came fast and furious, notably including LeBron James’s instant classic “U bum” tweet.

The fundamentals of the Curry issue are also less favorable to Trump. While the president sought to portray Kaepernick as having insulted politically neutral symbols of patriotism, Curry had clearly just snubbed Trump personally. Since Trump puts a high premium on matters that affect him personally, the distinction was likely not present in his mind when he opened this front of combat.

Regardless, fighting with Curry proved immediately disastrous and prompted anti-Trump statements from a range of athletes, franchise owners, and other stakeholders. It also led to a much larger wave of protests during Sunday’s football games, protests that — given the context — looked more clearly like anti-Trump gestures than anything else.

Trump is pivoting back to the flag

Having successfully pushed national anthem protests to an unprecedentedly high level through a mixture of racial rhetoric and egomania, Trump has now returned to his corner as the defender of neutral patriotic symbols.

And to ensure that the issue doesn’t go away, Trump is continuing to call for fan boycotts until the NFL institutes some kind of rule barring players from kneeling during the anthem.

The basic two-step is broadly familiar to what we saw around the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Having provoked mass outrage with his equivocation on white nationalist protesters, Trump then retreated to an argument about Confederate statues where his position is more popular. Curry and the Warriors, by the same token, have now disappeared from Trump’s tweets, and he’s simply raised the salience of the anthem protests issue — one on which public opinion seems to be on Trump’s side. Polling last fall had 61 percent of respondents saying they disagreed with Kaepernick’s protests, while a more recent survey by JD Power and Associates shows that many fans at least claim they are watching less football as a result of disliking the athlete protests.

On the other hand, Trump risks backlash from the sheer ham-fistedness of his efforts to inject white grievance politics into professional sports fandom. The way team owners shifted from blacklisting Kaepernick to condemning Trump is a sign of his problem here.

The owners don’t want their businesses to become yet another locus for partisan politics, and most fans probably don’t either — normal people of all political persuasions enjoy the idea of an occasional respite from the partisan fray. Trump has, in effect, made it impossible for anyone to stick to sports — creating a situation where coaches are expected to respond to presidential tweets and the choice between watching football or a NASCAR race has sharp partisan implications. And since player solidarity probably passed a point of no return last weekend and NFL franchises can’t unilaterally change the rules, there’s no clear exit from this dynamic unless Trump decides to simply move on to the next thing.