There is no redeeming quality to the unfolding war of words between President Trump and professional football players. It is a duel of cheap applause lines, especially by each side’s defenders, calculated to appeal to the already converted for their short-term gain and our long-term damage. It’s a perfect illustration of America’s sorry state of discourse in 2017.
Until this past weekend, one could reasonably view the widespread coverage of a smattering of demonstrations before NFL games — in which a handful of athletes knelt during the national anthem in a silent but not entirely coherent protest of race relations — as the media making a mountain out of a molehill. The kneeling began last season with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers; with Kaepernick now out of the league (there’s a side debate here as to whether his lack of an NFL job is because of his play or his protests) the demonstrations had grown to a not-exactly-whopping six players as of the second week of the season. There was a debate as to the propriety of the form of protest, but it was a relatively minor issue, all things considered. And despite the (in my view) out-sized coverage, most Americans regardless of their opinion of the protests, both their cause and their form, seemed content to ignore them.
Then Trump decided to enter the fray. And now we are back to our familiar, partisan battle lines.
Trump did what Trump does: He identified a division in society and drove a TNT-laced wedge into it. There was no need for him to speak on the matter of six professional football players kneeling during the national anthem. Yet he did, unprompted, during a campaign rally Friday for U.S. Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama. If you want to know why he brought it up at a campaign rally, in a state that doesn’t even have an NFL franchise in the first place, he basically gave away the game at the end of this excerpt from his speech from a story by Time:
“‘We’re proud of our country, we respect our flag,’ Trump said at a rally Friday. ‘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!”‘
“‘Some owners are going to do that. [They will say] “that guy who disrespects our flag, he’s fired!” That owner, they don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know, they’ll be the most popular person for a week,’ he continued at the stump speech in Alabama.”
His attraction to this issue is right there in that last sentence: “they’ll be the most popular person for a week.” That is the long and the short of it as far as Trump goes. If you think it’s about anything else for him — that it’s really about patriotism or anything other than seizing on a popular and emotional wedge issue — I dare say you’re kidding yourself and not listening closely enough to the man himself. It’s about popularity, and specifically, short-term popularity. He’s counting on millions of Americans who agree with him about the protests not to spend much time thinking about whether it’s worthy of the president’s time, or appropriate for him to render his opinion on it, and instead to consolidate behind him on this issue.
But hold on there, anti-Trumpers. You don’t get off scot-free here, either.
On the back of Trump’s remarks, scores of NFL players joined the protest on Sunday in one form or another. NFL owners and the league itself issued statements supporting the players in the face of the president’s protest. For if there’s anything as popular in America right now as being seen standing up for the flag, it’s being seen standing up against Trump. Especially if you’re a celebrity of any type. Suddenly, people unmoved by the protesters’ original cause are siding with them just because Trump attacked them.
Call me a cynic, but I don’t think this is still about race, or the flag, or anything else anymore. It’s a Trumpian litmus test. You’re either with him or against him. And it’s not going to stop with the NFL. Already, NASCAR has issued a warning against its employees demonstrating during the anthem, and an Oakland A’s player over the weekend reportedly became the first in Major League Baseball to join the protest.
Which brings us to the self-defeating part of this entire episode. A protest essentially going nowhere — even the talking heads, who enjoyed having this as a controversial topic during the off-season, were moving on now that there were actual games to analyze and discuss — has now been inflated to a larger size than ever before. And that inflation was brought on by people, on both sides, who previously showed no inclination to support the original cause. (Some of the players might have sympathized with the issues Kaepernick raised, but not to the point of adopting his chosen form of protest.)
Where has all this gotten us? We’re moving backward. What started out as a minor protest is now a major one. What started out as a faux fight over freedom of speech — there was no indication the government was going to try to force the kneeling players to stand — now arguably is legitimately a free-speech fight, what with the president of the United States calling for the protesters’ bosses to fire them. What started out as a small-scale politicization of a game is now a large-scale politicization of it. What started out as a rather generic debate about race relations is now a very specific fight about Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, that’s just how both Trump and his antagonists like it.