NFL players defy Trump’s demands
President Donald Trump has opened another front in America’s deepening culture wars, repeatedly calling on NFL franchise owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of political protest. Speaking at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., the president said last week that the handful of players who silently knelt during the anthem—a protest begun by quarterback Colin Kaepernick last season to highlight racial injustice and police treatment of black men—were displaying a “total disrespect of our heritage.” He said he wished owners would respond by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! You’re fired.” Trump doubled down on his comments in a series of 18 tweets over the next four days, calling for a “boycott” of the NFL and criticizing players for abusing “the privilege” of earning millions for playing sports. He also withdrew an invitation to the White House for reigning NBA champions the Golden State Warriors, after star player Stephen Curry said his feelings about Trump made it unlikely he’d attend.
In response to Trump’s comments, more than 250 NFL players across the country knelt or sat for their pregame anthems, while others interlocked arms or remained in the locker room to show their support for free speech. Several owners joined the demonstrations of solidarity—some of which elicited boos from fans—with even New England Patriots chief Robert Kraft, a Trump donor and supporter, saying he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s comments. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was “proud” of how players, coaches, and owners responded to Trump’s “divisive rhetoric.”
What the editorials said
Trump is right on the core issue here, said NationalReview.com: “Of course football players should stand for the national anthem.” Yes, the players have a legitimate grievance over the treatment of African-Americans by police and the justice system. But the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an “all too rare moment of civic comity”—a moment to display respect for a nation that “continues to be a force for liberty, decency, justice, peace, and prosperity.” The president’s attacks on the NFL have “nothing to do with patriotism or love of country,” said USA Today. Rather, this was “vintage Trump stoking flames of anger and resentment.” He knew the anthem protests would be a “ripe wedge issue”—a majority of Americans think they’re unpatriotic, but also accept the players’ right to carry them out—and saw an opening to “whip up” his base. All hail the “divider in chief.”
What the columnists said
Trump’s attack on African-American athletes “underscores the vital role of racist grievance” in his core message, said Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com. When he called the players ungrateful for “the privilege of making millions of dollars,” he was reviving the Jim Crow–era slur “uppity.” And he pointedly defined the two sides of this debate as “us” and “them,” turning a black player protest against police mistreatment into an assault on “America itself.”
Right or wrong, this was a “classic example” of Trump’s “gutlevel political savvy,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. He took a “commonly held sentiment”—that disrespecting the anthem is wrong—but stated it in a way guaranteed to “generate outrage among his critics,” and thus fire up his supporters. “This kind of thing is why he’s president.” Sorry, but fellow conservatives cheering this as a “win” for Trump are “missing the forest for the trees,” said David French, also in NationalReview.com. This is the president of the United States demanding that a private company fire its employees because of “free speech he doesn’t like.” That’s a dangerous threat to the First Amendment, and it’s why a tiny protest turned into a leaguewide show of solidarity.
Like it or not, Trump is “doing exactly what he was elected to do,” said David Brooks in The New York Times. He was elected to “shred the dominant culture,” defy the elites, and give voice to the resentments of the white working class, who feel “invisible and disrespected.” His incitements, including the attack on black athletes, have made America as culturally and racially divided as it was in the late 1960s. By the time Trump is done, “a new social fabric will have to be woven. That’s the work of the next 20 years.”