For over a year, NFL players have been protesting during the national anthem. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s personal display has now spread throughout both leagues. However, while the professional sports and sports media bubbles praise these protests, most people do not support the players’ actions. 72% of Americans view the protests as unpatriotic, while 61% do not “support the stance Colin Kaepernick is taking and his decision not to stand during the national anthem.”
Against this backdrop, President Trump waded into the controversy.
During a recent campaign rally in Alabama, Trump 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’s comments were disturbing. The President of the United States should not wish that private employers fire employees for wrongthink. Public officials should also not be referring to American citizens as “son[s] of b****[es]” or other pejoratives. It was wrong when Eric Holder called the American people “cowards,” and it is wrong when Trump does it.
Trump’s unpresidential and undignified remarks gave the NFL an easy public relations victory. However, like most anti-Trump opposition stunts, the NFL missed the kick… badly.
The NFL’s Overreach
Players across the league took knees during the anthem to protest Trump. Three teams–the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, and Seattle Seahawks--did not even come out onto the field for the national anthem.
Notably, Steelers offensive lineman and former West Point grad Alejandro Villanueva defied his team, and stood in the tunnel during the anthem. Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan.
Other anecdotal evidence shows that the stunt, at least with certain NFL teams, backfired. Fans in the not-exactly-MAGA-hat-wearing area of Foxborough, Massachusetts booed their own team. When the Steelers did come onto the field, they were booed by fans in Chicago. Boos were also heard in Indianapolis.
Sports media also took a hit: NBC’s Sunday Night Game of the Week was down 9% from the previous week, making it the lowest rated Week 3 Sunday night game since 2006.
On the flip side, Villanueva’s jersey became the top-selling jersey in the league. Villanueva’s teammate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wrote that he lost sleep over his regret of not joining Villanueva.
One Fumble Too Many
The NFL has had an image crisis of recent of late. They developed an image of being indifferent to sexual assault and brain injuries. Couple that with the anthem protests, and the NFL’s ratings have taken a significant hit.
The league has also come across as hypocritical. The league has fined players for using their position as professional athletes to advance certain causes: mental health, breast cancer, and domestic violence, to name a few. They also forbid the Dallas Cowboys from wearing decals that expressed support for the Dallas Police Department after five officers were killed in 2016.
However, the league has also said that no punishment will be given out for those who skipped the anthem.
The NFL players, coaches, and owners who participated in Sunday’s antics did so because they thought they were telling the President of the United States to do something very difficult (and obscene) to himself. However, to most people watching, it looks like they were protesting the national anthem–and, by extension, the country and those who have served to protect it. Either way, they let their own petty hatred for Trump outweigh the respect owed to our military during the anthem.
The NFL, if it hasn’t already, will soon learn that it has overreached. If protesting the national anthem becomes synonymous with protesting Trump, then Trump’s support will increase. If this continues, Trump will win re-election in 2020, and it will not matter who the Democrats nominate. They could nominate a reincarnated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they would still lose.
In the end, despite the wrongness of his comments, Trump played the NFL like a fiddle. That’s because, if Americans must choose between love of country or love of the NFL, the NFL will lose.