Donald Trump’s war on anthem protests might be working
The simple power of Colin Kaepernick’s original protest is becoming diluted
New England Patriots players hold hands and kneel during the national anthem prior to their match against the Houston Texans. Photograph: PA
Throughout these last two weeks of the NFL anthem wars, Donald Trump’s gift for telling people who do not answer to him what to do has been on majestic display.
Players who kneel during the anthem? Fire or suspend! Football fans? Should boycott games! NFL administrators? Need to tell players to stand! Must change policy! It’s all proof, once again, that there’s no problem this man cannot fix, so long as he has no responsibility for its resolution.
The bad news: it might be working. Look at the data and there’s reason to think the Great Extra-Jurisdictional Delegator’s message is getting through, at least indirectly. Far fewer players kneeled during the national anthem last weekend than was the case the week before – a fact Donald Trump Jr was quick to puff about on Sunday night.
Gesturally, among the players themselves, there’s also been a splintering away from Colin Kaepernick’s motion of a dropped knee with head bowed. Protest gestures are now more hedged, more inscrutable. Last weekend we saw players kneeling with hand on heart, kneeling with no hand on heart, kneeling while raising a fist, standing while raising a fist, kneeling before the anthem but standing during it. The simple power of Kaepernick’s original protest is becoming diluted.
The way administrators and team owners handle the messaging around the controversy is also changing. The on-field protests themselves are now so diverse and elaborate in form they come with their own heraldic social media explainers, in which teams advertise love of country and respect for the military as eagerly as they defend the players’ legitimate exercise of their First Amendment right to draw attention to racial injustice.
It’s debatable whether these explainers add necessary nuance to the debate – if we can call it that – or represent a capitulation to presidential bullying, but it seems unlikely NFL franchises would have been spooked into such a muddled defense of free speech without Trump’s bullhorn intervention on the issue. What should be a straightforward exercise in constitutional education has turned, bizarrely, into a pageant of military allegiance.
Among fans the effects of Trump’s player-baiting have been felt even more forcefully. Trump urged people to boycott the sport, and they are: ticket sales last week were down 18 per cent compared to the week before and TV ratings have dropped 11 per cent so far this season (the latest figures this week weren’t terrible but weren’t brilliant either). Quite possibly some of the deserters are in the Shaun King camp, and their boycott is born of disgust at the ostracisation of Kaepernick by the NFL and administrators’ mealy equivocation in the face of the Trump attacks.
It seems fair, however, to assume that most fans who are staying away either disapprove of the player protests or are put off by the politicization of the sport, which is a roundabout way of saying the same thing. (As countless other writers have pointed out in recent weeks, sport is politics; fans who claim to be “apolitical” are apologists for the status quo.)
The little public opinion polling that’s been done on the issue supports this view. The majority of fans disapprove of the protests, according to a poll for ESPN. Among white fans, the disapproval level rises to 62 per cent. (Approval of the protests is, not surprisingly, strongest among African-Americans.) Almost a third of avid NFL fans say they are less likely to attend games in the wake of the protests. And while 48 per cent of people who responded to a CBS poll said they also disapprove of Trump’s response to the protests, the public, somehow, is more turned off by the performance of a harmless and perfectly reasonable social protest than the unbecoming spectacle of America’s ranter-in-chief emptying his spleen into cyberspace. For protesting players, their increasingly uneasy bosses, and progressive allies on and off the field, this is tough to stomach.
Has Trump “won” the war with the NFL? On one level, the early answer must be “yes”. He’s whipped the nation into a froth over a minor cultural controversy, pricked the jingoistic indignation (let’s call it what it really is: racism) of football’s majority-white fanbase, sent ratings and gate receipts plummeting, and put the fear of commercial death into the sport’s administrator-kings. Bruising the NFL’s early-season TV numbers already ranks as the great victory of Trump’s first nine months in office – which is to say, the only victory. In another sense, however, Trump has very obviously lost the war.
The divide exposed by the last few weeks – protesting black players, cravenly “apolitical” or openly hostile white fans, a racist in the White House orchestrating mass outrage over nothing – has served as a useful, if painful, reminder of how far the NFL has to travel on racial equality. Black footballers fought for generations to break down the prejudices that locked them out of the professional game. Later they fought to be considered for on-field positions deemed too “cerebral” for non-whites (quarterback, center, tight end) – a struggle that continues to this day. Read the NFL report cards produced by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida and you’ll see that while 70 per cent of players in the NFL are black, football is overwhelmingly coached, officiated, managed, owned and supported by white people.
Trump’s anthem tantrum has reminded us what football in America is, and always has been: entertainment produced mostly by black people for an audience of superficially tolerant whites. On the evidence, few things agitate the sport’s white majority like a thoughtful black man. The tacit bigotry that has historically kept black players out of the “intellectual positions” up the middle of the attacking formation is of a piece with the fan prejudice we’re seeing today – all that booing and angry chewing – against the kneeling protesters. These players are offensive because they have brains: imagine the shock of the true racist on being forced to confront this reality. But the more the players protest, and the more Trump protests their protest, and the more fans, at Trump’s dog-whistled behest, stay away on game day, the more vividly these ugly institutional seams running through the sport will emerge.
Playing the national anthem before domestic sports contests is a strange and cultish ritual – and one that places America virtually alone among the community of nations. The practice became common in the years after the second world war; it was a demonstration of patriotism and a celebration of military victory, and therefore – no surprise here – an intensely political act. Drained of meaning through dull repetition, The Star-Spangled Banner suddenly means something again – all thanks to these kneeling footballers. No longer a lazy shorthand for the global hegemon’s self-congratulation, the anthem has instead been reinvested as an invitation to think about loss, and race, and the inequalities of a fraying political union. That can’t have been what Trump intended, but it’s no bad thing.