When my son was away at camp last week, I was able to achieve a fairly firm stranglehold on our TV remote. Not that my grip would ever be classified as weak, mind you, but the viewing environment was certainly less competitive than usual!
As I watched a few regular season CFL games and NFL exhibition contests, I was unexpectedly reminded of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-running battle with the latter organization. It’s funny how the human brain works sometimes.
In Sept. 2017, Trump ignited a firestorm of controversy at a political rally in Huntsville, Alabama when he took direct aim at the NFL. “You know what’s hurting the game?,” he said during his speech, “When people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem. Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now?’”
The precipitous reason for the former President’s statement occurred the year before. Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines by sitting on the bench during the team’s third pre-season game in 2016 during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, followed by kneeling during regular season games. He was protesting against racial injustice, oppression and police brutality in America. Kaepernick’s actions were widely viewed as disrespectful and offensive, but he certainly had support in the left-wing social justice movement.
When Trump injected himself into this controversial debate, it took on a whole new life. Basketball stars like Stephen Curry and LeBron James traded barbs with him on Twitter. Several pro championship teams either weren’t invited, or rejected invitations, to the White House, including the NBA’s Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018 (which Curry played on), the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 (which was rescinded by Trump). Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV couldn’t stop discussing it, either.
No matter your feelings about Trump, one thing was clear: he was a master media manipulator. With a quick personal jab and/or short tweet, he had the uncanny ability to create a narrative that riled up the general populace and kept him top of mind, even in the busiest of news cycles.
Trump’s critics believed his battle with the NFL had made a mockery of First Amendment rights. They felt he had launched the U.S. into another controversial episode of racial prejudice.
Yet, the Trump-NFL kerfuffle wasn’t solely about free speech. Otherwise, right-leaning individuals like me who opposed Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee would have sided with NFL players. They had the freedom to do this, be it an issue of police brutality, race relations or an intense dislike of Trump. Rather, the mistake they made was that it was a multi-faceted issue which went far beyond the parameters of free expression. As odd as this may sound, the protection of speech was the least important component of this entire dispute.
Trump maneuvered this debate in an effective manner. While Twitter could occasionally be his worst enemy, it served in this case as an ally. In a Sept. 25, 2017 tweet, he wrote, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” He framed it properly. The issue wasn’t about him or the players, but about flag and country. That’s the perfect way to win over public opinion, and his opponents couldn’t properly combat it.
Many Americans have long believed pro athletes are whiny and overpaid to begin with. The public’s love-hate relationship with sports stars, which is very different from the early days of hero worship, worked heavily against today’s players. Their passion for the game is often in dispute, and their reputations off the field are occasionally sullied. While it’s obviously unfair to paint all players with the same brush, this negative image remains firmly entrenched in the back of fans’ minds.
The NFL is a business first, and a social justice organization last. Several high-profile figures did support NFL players in the beginning, including Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, a major contributor to Trump’s inaugural committee, along with personal friends like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. It didn’t last. Fans expressed their disappointment with players taking a knee each week, and the NFL ultimately banned players in 2018 from doing this during the national anthem. If they hadn’t intervened, it would have led to reduced ticket and merchandise sales and diminished profit margins. The owners simply weren’t going to stand for this kneeling any longer.
Finally, the personal isn’t always political. Debating Trump’s motives in taking on the NFL remains fair game, but it was an issue that elicited strong views from many Americans. Plus, Trump had a strong interest in football based on his former ownership of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals and previous desire to own an NFL franchise. Hence, his decision to enter the fray was quite similar to the way his predecessor, Barack Obama, joined the equally controversial debate about the nickname of the Washington Redskins (now Commanders). Fancy that.
“Is the NFL ready for the return of Donald Trump?,” Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr wrote on July 28. “Can the league ensure it will not again be a cowering minnow trying to keep itself from the open mouth of a passing-by shark, like when it altered its national anthem policy in the wake of criticism from the former president?”
This remains to be seen. I’ll ponder these questions once I figure out where my son hid the remote in our house. Aargh!
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.