Anti-Trump protests could make Super Bowl LI a 'defining moment'

Houston braces itself for a season finale like no other, with demonstrations in danger of overshadowing the game

Super bowl
The Vince Lombardi trophy, seen alongside helmets from the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons 
(Image credit: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Super Bowl LI could well be remembered as more than just a clash between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots as the event's host city braces itself for a wave of anti-Donald Trump protests.

Houston's entire 5,000 police officers will be on patrol this weekend, alongside regional and federal law enforcement.

The 2016 NFL regular season was a relatively low-key affair, but against the backdrop of Trump's presidency, its finale could become a lightning rod for unrest.

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"This year, as the nation stands divided under its new president, the game – taking place in a blue city in Texas that's surrounded by red with a half-time act [Lady Gaga] who's an advocate for gay and women's rights – also has the potential to be a defining cultural moment," Quartz website says.

It should at least arrest the event's declining viewing figures.

"NFL officials pointed to the country's obsession with the presidential campaign as a big reason the league's television ratings fell during much of the regular season," reports the New York Times.

"This week, those two cultural phenomena – politics and football – are coming together again in an extraordinary, and for the league, uncomfortable way on the country's biggest sports stage."

This year's Super Bowl will be "infused with national politics like never before", the paper adds.

Sunday's match is being broadcast by Fox, which is perceived by many to be pro-Trump. The network's pre-game programming will include an interview with the President.

What's more, says the NYT, "the owner, coach and star player of one team, the highly successful New England Patriots, are friends of the President's".

Then there is the prospect of Lady Gaga, a fierce critic of Trump, making a political statement during her half-time show, which is expected to have an audience of more than 100 million.

Outside the stadium, "officials have vowed to support peaceful demonstrations", reports NBC. There have already been protests against President Trump's immigration ban but earlier this week Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said it was possible for people to exercise their "constitutional right to voice their opinion... and have good football at the same time".

The wider issues surrounding the game are unwelcome in some quarters.

"Houston has been preparing for its moment in the spotlight since 2013, when the NFL named it a Super Bowl host city and Donald Trump was still a TV show host," says the Houston Chronicle, adding: "President Trump keeps stealing the national spotlight, right when Houston was expecting to soak it up."

Trump overshadows Super Bowl as Tom Brady dodges questions

31 January

As America reels from the opening week of Donald Trump's presidency, even the Super Bowl, which takes place this Sunday, is in danger of being overshadowed. There are even fears the president's policies could impact on Los Angeles's hopes of winning the 2024 Olympic Games.

"The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots have arrived in Houston for American football's 51st showpiece event this weekend, but there is no escaping the political landscape in the country as Trump continues to make waves after assuming office earlier this month," reports the Daily Telegraph.

Centre of attention are Mohamed Sanu, the Falcons's wide receiver who is also the only practising Muslim playing in Sunday's game, and Tom Brady, the Trump-supporting superstar quarterback of the New England Patriots.

Sanu, who spent part of his childhood in Sierra Leone, did his best to dodge questions about Trump's immigration ban when he appeared before the media on Monday, but hinted he had opinions he was not prepared to share.

He described it as a "very tough situation" and added: "I just pray that us as a country and a world can just be united as one. It's really hard for me to talk about this now, it would take a lot of time, so I just want to focus on the game and just talk about football."

Sanu has escaped further scrutiny, but Brady may find it easier to shake off Atlanta's defensive linemen on Sunday than avoid awkward questions about his endorsement of Trump during the build-up to the game.

"Tom Brady no longer gets a pass on his friendship with Donald Trump," writes USA Today's influential columnist Nancy Armour. "Not after this weekend, when the country boiled over in rage and indignation at Trump's decision to turn America's back on refugees.

Brady's backing of Trump may have had more to do with his golf courses than his policies but that no longer matters, she says. "In refusing to publicly disavow Trump's actions, Brady is giving tacit endorsement to both Trump and the chaos he has created.

"Regardless of whether he was duped into being a prop or is genuinely friends with Trump, Brady inserted himself into the national firestorm. He can't be surprised that people want to know more. And now expect more."

Brady is not the only major New England figure with trump connections. Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are both said to be associates of the new president. But politics was off the agenda at Monday's press call.

Broadcaster Fox Sports was rather more forgiving after Brady and the Patriots organisation stonewalled questions. "Reaction to Brady staying out of the fray was predictable but, come on, what did you expect?" asked Chris Chase. "Don't spout any nonsense about it being Brady's responsibility to speak. If you believe in the power of protest, you must also respect the right to stay silent."

But that isn't the end of it, says Reuters. "Trump's first weeks in office have been marked by protests and the Super Bowl could also provide a potential flash point particularly during the halftime show where Lady Gaga, who has routinely expressed her support when it comes to LGBT rights, will be the headliner.

"The President's protectionist rhetoric and plans for a wall... would also appear at odds with the NFL's global ambitions that have included building bridges into the Mexican market playing a regular season game in Mexico City last year."

It says that the unrest could even affect advertisers, who traditionally jostle for space during the game but may be rattled "as they recalibrate the mood of the country".

Meanwhile in Los Angeles there are fears for the city's Olympic bid, reports Sean Ingle of The Guardian. Trump's travel order "has not only further inflamed liberal opinion across the globe but inadvertently performed an act of presidential vandalism on LA's bid", he says.

The Olympic movement has embraced refugees, who were even given their own team at Rio 2016, while Trump's executive order "tramples over the IOC's charter".

However, all is not lost, says Ingle. China was awarded the Games in 2008 despite its human rights record, while LA's main rivals, Paris and Budapest face "potential icebergs", not least the possibility of far right leader Marine le Pen winning the French election ahead of the IOC's decision in September.

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