American sport unites in defiance of divisive Donald Trump

US president touched a raw nerve with his attacks on NFL and popular basketball stars

US president Donald Trump says NFL owners "should do something" about the players who are taking a knee during the national anthem before games, saying "it's very disrepectful to our country." Video: NFL/Reuters

 

It ought to go without saying by now that the planet is too long into this thing with Donald Trump to start declaring turning points.

Mexicans-as-rapists wasn’t enough. “Grab-em-by-the-pussy” wasn’t enough. Mocking the disabled wasn’t enough. Not only weren’t they enough, they worked in his favour and got him elected. Forget turning points, they were, in effect, springboards for his popularity.

But now that he’s going after sportspeople, directly and by name in some instances, in general and by slur in others, you have to wonder two things.

One, given his clear pattern of lighting fires under minor issues that affect America to distract from actual ones that affect him, what political trouble is he in behind the scenes just now?

Deciding out of nowhere to go after NFL players kneeling for the anthem and disinviting NBA players from the White House must mean something is afoot – that’s how he has thus far rolled.

Secondly, and more to the point, has he finally picked on the one slice of American society he would have been better off leaving to its own devices? You can go a long way in the US punching down on minorities – you can even be president. But sport is not a minority pursuit and maybe Trump is about to have his skin pricked in a way his more prosaic outrages haven’t managed.

Out in the world, Trump has spent the last week threatening to destroy North Korea again, failing to get his healthcare mishmash off the ground again and throwing his weight behind a nodding-dog senate candidate in a Republican primary in Alabama. It’s all deadly serious stuff but if you have chosen, as many of us have, to just be interested in something else for a few years in the service of your own sanity and wellbeing, it’s generally become-day-go-day noise at this point.

But if you follow American sport to any extent, now he’s back in your neighbourhood. On Friday night in Alabama, he rolled out the old hit of NFL players taking a knee for the anthem. This bubbled up for a while last season when then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the trend in protest at the treatment of people of colour in America.

In truth, although it had gained a certain amount of traction at the time, with other NFL players and athletes in other sports joining in here and there, it was a phenomenon that had largely had its day. In a league with plenty of substandard quarter-backs, Kaepernick doesn’t have a job anymore despite being only 29 and having played in the SuperBowl only four years ago.

But though there is a widespread assumption that he’s been blackballed in places because of his political stance, it was far from a raging issue in the early weeks of the season.

Dyseptic grace

Until, that is, Trump saw a crowd salivating in Alabama last Friday night and couldn’t resist throwing out a dump truck of red meat for them.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.’”

Over the weekend, he doubled down with his usual dyspeptic grace. Of course he did. A throwaway line in a rambling hour-and-a-half speech morphed into him spending last few days calling for a boycott of the NFL. Yesterday’s bout of Twitter vomitus went: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend! NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back US.”

Oh, and in the middle of all this, he found time to go to the mattresses with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors over the traditional White House visit of the NBA champions.

In a move not seen since your 13-year-old niece’s birthday party, he publicly disinvited Curry when the two-time MVP prevaricated over whether to attend. All of which washed out in LeBron James calling the sitting president “U Bum” in a Tweet supporting Curry over the weekend.

If it was just another Trump-of-the-month row, it wouldn’t be worth spending any time on. But this one has the potential to be different because of the visibility and heft of the sportspeople involved. LeBron and Curry are the two most famous players in basketball. They’ve been backed by Adam Silver, the NBA league commissioner. That’s a whole sport sneering its contempt for Trump.

And even if it was that alone, it would still only be basketball. A big deal, but not the biggest. But yesterday, all across the NFL, voices from all quarters turned against him. The commissioner Roger Goodell had a go. Team owners, some of them like Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Shahid Kahn of the Jacksonville Jaguars who had previously donated millions to Trump’s election funds, came out against him.

In doubt

Players kneeled for the anthem right across the league, multiples of the numbers who had done so before.

A dozen Baltimore Ravens, 20 Patriots, eight Detroit Lions. The Pittsburgh Steelers players stayed in the dressing room as one. In an unprecedented move, owners linked arms with their players on the sideline in protest. The sport left nobody in doubt what it thought of their president.

So, what now? That’s the question.

Trump will obviously continue to keep kicking back against the NFL because he knows no other way. But if the upshot is to further entrench protesters in America’s biggest sport, then what we will see is kneel after kneel, Sunday after Sunday. A relentless, normalised repudiation of a disgraced and disgraceful president. Live in every living room, bar and airport across the 50 states week after week.

“In this incredibly polarising time,” said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll yesterday, “there’s no longer a place to sit silently. It’s time to take a stand.”

Good. And long may that stand hold, for sport and for all.

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