Week 7 in the NFL saw fewer players kneeling and no fiery protest-related commentary from either the league’s owners or the White House. Players and owners had spent the week beforehand calmly discussing the protest matter, respecting one another’s views enough to claim some progress. It was enough to give the slightest hope that perhaps, given time, owners and players could reach a compromise solution to one of the most pressing crises in league history.
It didn’t last. Early Monday morning, President Trump threw gasoline on the embers, resuming his attacks on the league:
“Two dozen NFL players continue to kneel during the National Anthem, showing total disrespect to our Flag & Country,” Trump tweeted. “No leadership in NFL!”
The tweet itself wasn’t particularly remarkable; it’s the same combination of black-and-white, zero-compromise sweeping judgment that’s marked Trump’s entire stance on the league.
What the tweet did was serve notice that Trump will continue battering the NFL from the bully pulpit until he’s achieved total victory. If even one player continues to kneel, sit, or remain in the locker room during the anthem, Trump will be able to claim the NFL has “no leadership.” He’ll continue to rally his base against the league for wins that come even easier than games against the Cleveland Browns.
Trump has done an indisputably effective job of dividing the country into zero-nuance, us-vs.-them factions—on the NFL issue, and on everything else—and has wrested the protest issue out of the hands of the players and cast it in stark terms: if you’re for the protest, you’re against America and the troops. That was never the intent of the protesting players, who have taken pains to say they respect America’s military. Players and teams, working together, have pursued charitable efforts all over the country to address the very conditions they’re protesting. Plus, the NFL as a league has spent the last 15 years showing more on-field patriotism than any other sport, anywhere in the world. None of that matters anymore.
A year ago, it would have seemed absurd to think that the NFL, home of the hundred-yard-long flag, could be cast as “unpatriotic” and “un-American.” But President Trump is well aware of the fact that Americans hold the flag sacred and take any challenge to it very seriously. Since the love-it-or-leave-it angle is a much easier sell to angry crowds or on Twitter, clearly the president’s attacks on the NFL are going to continue.
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