Sure, President Donald Trump makes a lot of political mistakes, but getting into a joust with the NFL will not be one of them. Trump coyly has set himself up for a win-win political scenario without having to expend much effort. The kerfuffle over kneeling or sitting for the national anthem began last year with the protest by former Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. “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.
Despite some legitimate concerns in America about injustices imposed by a minority of law enforcement, polling suggests almost two-thirds of Americans have little sympathy for protests by sports figures during the anthem. Once the anthem protest movement spread to other teams and franchises, a large segment of the fan base began to feel alienated and many reevaluated their support for a sport that has effectively replaced baseball as America’s pastime. Despite mammoth popularity and a broad national reach, problems with the NFL have been surfacing for over a decade. Negative publicity from concussions and off the field criminal issues, like domestic violence, have already stymied the league’s reputation and popularity. The rise of soccer moms and the suburbia soccer craze is in part due to safety issues over football.
“NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN,” President Trump tweeted Sunday morning. “Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.” Trump is only using the controversy and national division to strengthen his political base and capitalizing on impeccable timing to call out the nation’s wealthiest sports league in the world. The Politifact website boasted that Trump is mostly false in declaring that ratings are “way down,” but a nine percent decline since last year is significant even for the NFL goliath.
At a political rally in Alabama Friday, Trump let loose with the comment that trapped many players into their no win response; which is their desperate need to respond to Trump by essentially doing the opposite of what he said. “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!’” Trump declared. The crowd ate it up, erupting with cheers. “What’s hurting the game…is when people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee, when they’re playing our great national anthem,” he added. Trump knew the players and many team front offices would overreact to his remarks and blow the controversy up into a national spectacle.
There is no doubt that Trump’s comments only fuels the political and cultural divide within the country. But from a purely political perspective, his instincts are on this issue are correct. Additionally, Trump excels at inverting the leftist bullying tactics so prevalent in the cultural wars by throwing it back in their face. Yes, it’s unpresidential and often laced with sophomoric statements but by standing up to the sports and entertainment elite, as National Review Editor Rich Lowry noted, “this kind of thing is why he is president” today.
Trump knows people are tired of being lectured at by mass entertainment culture and corporate leaders. As a businessman and entertainment mogul himself, Trump too knows that the NFL has the most to lose by responding to him with incessant protests and outrage.
One can certainly argue about whether protesting the anthem is a legitimate or a disrespectful way to raise attention for movements like Black Lives Matter or police injustice in America. Ultimately, the decision is up to the NFL players, and more specifically, the owners and advertisers. At the end of the day though, this is a political issue that will continue to showcase Trump’s popular appeal and strength with large segments of America.