In altering anthem policy, NFL made itself into bigger piñata for President Trump to smack

If the NFL thinks its new national anthem policy is going to appease President Donald Trump – and really, that’s all this is about – then, well, that ought to work out about as well as having your lunch money stolen and believing that bringing extra cash the next day will solve the problem.

Trump slapped the NFL around on the anthem issue. There is no denying that. It’s a complete knockout victory, yet for Trump it’s better than that. Anytime he wants he can put the smelling salts under the NFL’s nose before using the league again as a convenient rallying cry to his political base.

Last September, Trump enflamed the anthem controversy that was all but burned out. What started in August of 2016 with Colin Kaepernick was down to as few as eight players league-wide kneeling in Week 2 of the 2017 season, although the fact there is no reliable stat shows how little anyone was paying attention.

The heat that President Donald Trump brought on the NFL was too much for commissioner Roger Goodell and ownership to take. (AP)
The heat that President Donald Trump brought on the NFL was too much for commissioner Roger Goodell and ownership to take. (AP)

Trump blasted the NFL anyway and called any protesting player a “son of a bitch.” Everything went nuts. At least for awhile. By season’s end protests were at a minimum. No one knelt during the playoffs, for example.

Still, on Wednesday, NFL owners, who always voted to keep The Donald out of their ranks, proved they were still rattled by Trump and his tweets. The league announced a new policy, a split-the-baby plan that calls for fines and punishment against players who protest during the anthem, but also offers them the penalty-free choice to stay in the locker room while acknowledging their right to protest.

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Trump can declare victory on this. He won. And then he can rip the league at will because this plays into his hand. The policy does little and the underlying reasons his comments worked aren’t going anywhere.

It’s win-win for him and lose-lose for the NFL.

The NFL certainly didn’t do this because it is patriotic or cares about the anthem. If it cared about the anthem it would have demanded all its players stand for it, as the NBA does. Better yet, it would never have been caught taking payments from the Department of Defense to stage patriotic ceremonies during games.

The NFL cares about money and only money, which is fine. It’s a business, not a civic institution. It never should have allowed itself to become some silly culture war pawn.

Likewise, Trump doesn’t care about the anthem either. Sorry, but there’s no way a guy who belittles Gold Star families, intelligence agency personnel and prisoners of war gets to define patriotism.

Trump is a politician and he is a master at using red-meat issues to survive.

Plenty of Americans were understandably defensive of the flag and the anthem. That’s a legit opinion. Others, who merit little sympathy, are prone to complaints about unappreciative millionaire athletes, especially African-American ones. That’s just pathetic bigotry.

The anthem protest was nothing but a chance to appeal to both groups for Trump. He milked them both. It is what it is. The man is a bully. Many of his supporters acknowledge that. It’s what they believe America needs. It’s why they voted for him.

So how exactly does the NFL think this will quell Trump’s interest in using it to whip his voters into a frenzy? This just emboldens him. He knows he can push the league around.

This fall, when Trump is looking to win midterm elections or raise his poll numbers, he will absolutely come back at the NFL for something – player celebrations, player misconduct, player whatever. He’s even dabbled in bemoaning the NFL’s new rules seeking to make the game safer.

The NFL will remain Trump’s piñata. He’s going to keep whacking it.

As a crisis management strategy, the NFL’s best move here was to do nothing. The best way to stop a bully is to punch back, but it can’t literally punch Trump. Arguing back doesn’t matter. He may complain and cry about any slight directed at him since the man knows no boundaries.

This is someone who attacks other men for infidelity, after all.

The second-best policy is ignoring the criticism and acting like you don’t care what he says. That made sense here anyway because there was just no need for a new policy. Kneeling was hardly a widespread thing by December.

Jaguars players lock arms and kneel in September days after President Donald Trump blasted the NFL. (AP)
Jaguars players lock arms and kneel in September days after President Donald Trump blasted the NFL. (AP)

As for viewer and fan boycotts, those had minimal impact and likely petered out quickly. It takes incredible discipline to make those work with meaningful numbers over a lengthy period of time. A week or two, sure. By the playoffs? Forget it.

Yes, there were certainly some who wrote off the league over this issue, but does allowing players to remain in the locker room really bring them back? Sitting in a locker room during the anthem is still a form of protest, so what’s the difference?

Television ratings were down, but they are down for almost everything, and media executives say that when streaming and online figures were factored in, more people watched football last season, not less. There were also fans on the other side who boycotted because Kaepernick was unemployed.

In terms of the bottom line, all of this is moot. With the legalization of sports wagering, ratings (and ancillary revenue) are expected to surge over the next half decade no matter what the league does with the anthem. The NFL had enough strength to shrug this off and deem Trump irrelevant.

Instead the league played into Trump’s hand and changed the policy in hopes that he doesn’t attack the NFL next time.

That isn’t how this works. It isn’t how this will work.

The NFL could hardly make itself easier for Donald Trump to kick around and when Donald Trump can kick, he kicks. Every time.

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