Trump, protesting players won't give NFL any relief in heated national anthem debate

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist

For decades, the doctrine has driven the NFL to unprecedented fiscal peaks: Spread the product, grow the profit, mitigate financial slides, enhance the brand. And above all else, steer away from the downward slopes of division, ones that include issues of race, politics, economics, domestic violence and brain trauma.

Rinse. Repeat. Collect billions.

Then came Sept. 22, when President Donald Trump’s administration opened beneath the NFL, devouring commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 franchises that employ him. This isn’t a slippery slope, mind you. It’s a sinkhole with no bottom in sight. That’s where the NFL finds itself today, having fallen into a political void with no easy way out. Entangled with a president who won’t stop, won’t forget, and who very well may rip apart an entire league – so long as he gains some advantage in the process.

When the league looks at the options on the table, all it sees is massively destructive scenarios and a nuclear winter that threatens everything financially. And not only is Trump accentuating that reality, he’s stoking it by eliminating any positive outcomes. And he’s doing it for his own gain. If players kneel for the anthem, they should be fired. If they stand, he was the driving force behind the NFL fixing its “problem.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) kneels down with teammates before the U.S. national anthem was played before New Orleans' game against Miami in London. (AP)
Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) kneels down with teammates before the U.S. national anthem was played before New Orleans’ game against Miami in London. (AP)

And then what’s next after that? Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton raised a fist in the end zone after a touchdown against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Do we really believe that Trump couldn’t latch onto that to stoke and rile his base? Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch wore a shirt declaring “Everybody vs. Trump.” Is there any certainty that Trump wouldn’t get turned inside-out about that in a time of boredom?

And, of course, there’s always that business of Trump having been shut out of the NFL for decades. Hell hath no fury like a president scorned.

This is what scares the NFL right now. That Trump’s appetite for upheaval and division – indeed, his courtship of the downward slope – can never be satisfied. And in the case of the league, he’s now feeding off its product, profit and brand.

The crown jewels of the doctrine are all in play, collectively thrust into the intersection of a racial, social and constitutional storyline. Trump took a vaguely embraced and somewhat understated player movement for criminal justice reform and turned it into his own ATM machine. And since his remarks on Sept. 22 – when he called for the firing of kneeling “son of a bitch” players – Trump has hit that ATM harder than a high-rolling strip club connoisseur.

Consider this: Since Sept. 23, the morning after Trump’s remarks about NFL players, he has tweeted or retweeted about the NFL or the national anthem debate almost nonstop through Sunday afternoon. In that span, his pressing and all-important Twitter agenda broke down like this:

The Puerto Rico disaster? Forty tweets or retweets.

The NFL and national anthem debate? Twenty-seven.

Healthcare? Ten.

Tax reform? Eight.

North Korea? Seven.

You can see why the NFL is falling into some panic because Trump is turning the social activism of players – and when they choose to express their stance on it – into a movement that could seriously threaten the league’s bottom line. And this is a movement that can’t be easily quelled, avoided or bought off with deep pockets. A movement that – because of Trump’s capitalistic nature – will continue to live inside rhetoric and threats and opportunistic agendas. Maybe Trump isn’t entirely responsible for that, but he is thriving inside it.

Now the NFL has been left with only nuclear options where it concerns the freedoms of its players and the forms of protest that they choose.

Eliminate the national anthem? Catastrophic.

Halt all forms of protest inside the stadium? Oppressive.

Move teams off the field during the anthem? Tyrannical.

President Donald Trump is adamant about NFL players standing during the national anthem. (AP)
President Donald Trump is adamant about NFL players standing during the national anthem. (AP)

Create a “Team America” patch for uniforms? That’s just, well, there really isn’t a single word to properly encapsulate how foolish that sounds. This idea was allegedly kicked around in a meeting between the NFL and a handful of owners, according to a story by That piece portrayed the league as a band of owners fretting over the bottom line, but completely uncertain of how to protect it. That’s logical, seeing as the league is caught in a triangle between Trump, the players and a splintering fan base. All the while, dealing with a ratings microscope and cancelled DirecTV packages and polls that suggest the league might be in for some serious backlash if this continues to mushroom.

One thing in all of this is certain. Unless the players suddenly volunteer to give up their undeniably powerful social platform of the NFL stage, this won’t end soon. And it almost certainly won’t go in a positive direction because that doesn’t benefit Trump in the long term. He has his hooks in now, and it’s been a very profitable venture for him politically. Just like the Hillary Clinton emails. Or railing on the administration of former President Barack Obama. The NFL has become Trump’s new sweet spot for igniting his base – and he rarely resists taking his swings.

Outside of the concussion concerns, this may be the league’s most brutal and lasting slope. With Trump and the NFL, the slide could go on for years or even decades with no solid footing to be had. Whatever happens next, there are no good options for the league now. There is no bottom to this sinkhole and the profitable doctrine of past decades is in serious jeopardy of collapse.

Rinse. Retreat. Lose billions.

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