Like a lot of observers, when Donald Trump first shouted and tweeted his way into the simmering but largely controlled controversy over NFL players (mostly one NFL player, the unemployed Colin Kaepernick) protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, I thought he had really screwed up. As Jonathan Chait pointed out, he succeeded mainly in expanding the protests and turning them into an act of defiance against the broadly unpopular Trump in defense of widely respected free-speech rights.
But to give the devil his due, Trump persisted in claiming that the protests amounted to an intolerable display of disrespect for the flag, the country, veterans, and members of the armed services. And when NFL owners largely sided with their protesting players rather than the president, Trump threatened their wallets by suggesting his followers boycott games.
NFL viewership has indeed declined this season, though not as much as it did in 2016, and there are a variety of contributing factors. But perhaps more importantly, Trump seems to be gradually winning the war for public opinion on the protests, at least insofar as he and his supporters continue to frame it as a question of patriotism. Kathryn Casteel looked at polls that mentioned the target of the protests — the national anthem — but not the reason for the protests — racism or police brutality — and found pretty solidly negative reactions:
According to the CBS poll, a little over half of respondents disapproved of players kneeling during the anthem, while 38 percent approved.
Similarly, in a HuffPost/YouGov poll, close to half of respondents felt the protest was inappropriate, while 36 percent thought it was appropriate.
In a separate CNN poll, when asked whether players kneeling during the anthem is the right or wrong thing, 43 percent of respondents said players were doing the right thing while 49 percent disagreed.
Casteel also noted that reactions to the protests vary enormously by race and party. Since the NFL-fan demographic tends to skew whiter, older, wealthier, and more male than the country as a whole, the odds of an economically costly backlash are very high if Trump & Co. keep up the pressure. The vice-president’s fatuous stunt on Sunday of showing up at an Indianapolis Colts game specifically in order to leave after an anthem protest was a pretty good indication that the president’s not going to let this go.
It may not be coincidental, then, that NFL owners seem ready to capitulate to Trump, with some face-saving gestures for players intended to make it easier for them to throw in the towel as well.
The planned surrender is being telegraphed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a letter to owners that went out today. Here are the two key paragraphs:
Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.
Building on many discussions with clubs and players, we have worked to develop a plan that we will review with you at next week’s League meeting. This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country.
Translation: All players will be required to stand during the national anthem, presumably on pain of being fined, suspended, or dismissed, as Trump has demanded. The league will sponsor alternative “platforms” for drawing attention to issues like racism and policy brutality, so long as protesters stay away from the anthem.
If Goodell’s letter isn’t clear enough, the underlying rationale was made plain over the weekend by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who earlier was supportive of the anthem protests:
“Its a different dialogue today,” Ross said, noting the issue last year was raising awareness for equality and other issues that didn’t involve patriotism. “Whenever you’re dealing with the flag, you’re dealing with something different. [The President] has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is. I think it’s incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, to stand and salute the flag.”
The big remaining question is whether the players will go along with this surrender — if not all of them, then enough to return the protests to the level of heat they represented before Trump’s intervention. The owners are most definitely serving notice that if the players persist, this time they won’t enjoy the support of their employers.
If all goes as the NFL plans, the whole saga will drift back into the mist of multiple controversies and divisions in which pro football plays a much less conspicuous role. And at that point, the biggest threat to peace and quiet in the NFL could well be Trump’s own inability to graciously declare at least a partial victory and move on.
It’s unclear if Trump imagined any particular endgame when he issued that belligerent roar at anthem protesters in Alabama a few weeks ago. But soon enough, he may have cowed rich sports-team owners, “reined in” spoiled (and largely African-American) professional athletes, and defended the kind of empty jingoistic displays that he and many of his supporters love. Not for the first time, Trump may be shrewder, in his distinctive hammerheaded manner, than his critics imagine.