President Trump has backed the NFL into a corner

LONDON — In the span of about 12 hours, President Donald Trump decided to call the mothers of NFL players who kneel during the pregame national anthem “bitches,” called for a boycott of the NFL because it doesn’t immediately fire said protesters, decried new safety rules that outlaw things such as helmet-to-helmet hits in the league (and presumably college, high school and Pop Warner, as well), and then disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from visiting the White House because star Stephen Curry said he, himself, is against the team going.

He was Donny from Queens dialing into WFAN. First time, long time.

Stick to … politics?

Whatever, sports is intertwined in American society, and Trump has found some low-hanging fruit here for his base to gulp down. And when it finds something it likes to chomp on, he’ll keep feeding it and feeding it.

Protesters. Supposedly ungrateful millionaires. Wimpy regulations. Nostalgia.

President Donald Trump waves to the crowd after speaking at a rally in Alabama where he ripped the NFL. (REUTERS)
President Donald Trump waves to the crowd after speaking at a rally in Alabama where he ripped the NFL. (REUTERS)

This is Trump’s greatest-hits album. Who cares if it’s fact-based? Once it found applause at a rally Friday in Huntsville, Alabama, it likely put itself into heavy rotation.

“If you see [a player protest], even if it’s one player, leave the stadium,” Trump said. “I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave.”

Things won’t stop. At least not in the short term. If anything, Trump will create more protests from players and galvanize support among their peers. Players “will never back down when it comes to protecting [their] constitutional rights … as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks,” DeMaurice Smith of the NFLPA said in response.

With TV contracts set, and sweetheart stadium deals in place, there isn’t much anyone can do to hurt the NFL’s bottom line enough for it to reverse course, violate its collective-bargaining agreement or get pushed around.

NFL owners are, for the most part, real billionaires who for decades rejected Trump’s bid to join them. The owners may have donated $7.25 million to his inauguration fund, but just as that won’t stop the president to call for a mass rejection of a major American business, it doesn’t mean they truly respect him.

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Saturday morning. “There is no better example of that than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month.

“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our payers, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

Fair points. That doesn’t mean Trump isn’t a concern for the league. He’s the voice of plenty of NFL fans. They can’t crush the NFL, but they can hurt it in some proportion.

Trump continued his anti-protest rhetoric on Twitter on Saturday morning, and even seemed to take offense with the NFL’s response.

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Many will dismiss Trump’s ranting as ridiculous, short-sighted, unconstitutional, heartless, mindless, profane, self-serving and hypocritical. After all, is kneeling during an anthem to highlight unnecessary force by police really more un-American than claiming you don’t like prisoners of war because they got captured? And, really, is he pro-concussions?

You can likewise roll your eyes and laugh because Trump says lots of red-meat things (like most politicians) when he’s trying to change the subject over what isn’t happening with his agenda in Washington. Yes, he’s the president, but who really cares?

Well, a lot of people do. A lot of people are outraged at the anthem protests. A lot of people do feel a disconnect between themselves and the players. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong or cherry-picking. This is America. People are free to get offended at whatever they want as much as they want.

This is not an issue the forever image-conscious NFL wants to fight. The league spent years and years draping the game in giant flags and military promotions (some of which it pathetically charged the military to stage). The NFL knows its audience.

Many of those people are highly politicized. They see flag protests and safe-tackling rules as part of the ongoing culture wars. Trump is one of the few people speaking for them, shouting from a podium the same things they shout in their living rooms. The NFL does not want these fans to see boycotting the league as some kind of badge of honor or purity test.

“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage,” Trump said of the protesters, who he labeled “sons of bitches.” “That’s a total disrespect for everything we stand for.”

Should the NFL expect more players to join Michael Bennett and others by kneeling during the national anthem? (Getty)
Should the NFL expect more players to join Michael Bennett and others by kneeling during the national anthem? (Getty)

NFL owners such as Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder each donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, per federal reports. The league itself kicked in $100,000. Houston’s Bob McNair gave over $250,000 to his campaign.

Trump even named New York Jets owner Woody Johnson (another $1 million giver) the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, where here in London the NFL will begin its international season with Baltimore and Jacksonville on Sunday in its effort to expand the business, all while his boss is trying to hurt it.

Trump’s a politician, though. And when he has a line of attack that garners support among his base, at a time when he needs everything he can get to maintain that support, he’s going to ride it. In short, the NFL got suckered.

Trump isn’t going to let up now. On Saturday, he went after the NBA, using Twitter to uninvite the Golden State Warriors to the traditional championship White House visit. This came after the team said it would collectively consider whether to attend and Curry said he was going to vote no.

The likelihood the Warriors were ever going anywhere near the Rose Garden was always remote. It stands to reason no NBA team will visit the White House as long as Trump is there. So he struck first and claimed the Warriors aren’t welcome.

This will have less impact on the NBA, which plays to a more diverse, young, cosmopolitan and international fan base than the NFL, which hits all demographics. The league will likely see it as a badge of honor. The NBA’s strength is in never really caring. Meanwhile, Trump could use it as a springboard to bash the NBA to people who don’t like the NBA anyway.

It’s everyone playing to the base. That’s where we are as a country right now.

Trump knows how to exploit it better than anyone. He runs much of his life like a talk-radio or cable-TV segment, a quick clash of ideas and putdowns based as much on emotion than anything else.

The NFL’s problem is it is so big, it needs, or at least wants, to appeal to everyone. It’s playing four games in London this year. One more in Mexico. It wants to hit China in 2019.

The NFL is trying to be the biggest of all tents, yet now its friend in the White House wants to wage a boycott war from its right flank.

Stick to politics? What is politics these days?

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