Buffalo Bills players kneel in protest during the anthem before a game against the Denver Broncos.
(photo credit: TIMOTHY T. LUDWIG-USA TODAY SPORTS / REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Over the past week, the Trump administration quietly lobbied a handful of senators to secure enough votes for a drastic overhaul of America’s health system.
On Sunday, it unveiled edits and an indefinite extension of its controversial travel ban for citizens of seven “threatening” countries.
But the main story this weekend was President Donald Trump’s decision to pick a fight with the National Football League, through incendiary remarks he delivered in Alabama on Friday and further fueled by a crescendo of activity on Twitter.
The president was criticizing athletes who have engaged in an act of protest for at least eight years: kneeling during the national anthem at the beginning of each game in order to highlight social injustice.
The source of Trump’s ire at this particular moment seemed to be one such player’s decision to decline an invitation to the White House. That player, Stephen Curry, cited in his decision the president’s controversial response to a white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month.
“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?’” Trump said, before firing off 14 tweets and re-tweeting three more on the matter over the course of four days.
This is a familiar pattern, in which the president picks a fight of little consequence on policy that, nevertheless, stresses the nation’s social fabric along its threads of ethnicity and race, creating a distractive chaos that obscures his team’s determined policy work. Put more succinctly: “When the president of the United States calls anyone a son of a bitch, that’s a story,” an NFL spokesman said on Monday.
As distracting as this tactic may be from the policymaking process, it is for those protesting the very story that matters: That an American president would chastise those seeking social equality as “sons of bitches” while claiming “very fine people” march under swastikas, stars and bars, represents to them a fundamental challenge to the American idea.
Especially for black athletes at the front lines of this protest, it was a particularly painful irony that Trump would excoriate them for doing so, and yet defend those flying the flag of the Confederate rebellion as in keeping with American heritage.
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Trump tweeted on Monday in response to the criticism.
“It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” The more Trump doubled down, the larger the protest against him grew within the football community.
Several owners kneeled with scores of players during Sunday’s games, and some teams simply stayed in their locker rooms as the song played.
The NFL’s thankless commissioner, Roger Goodell, issued a statement characterizing the president’s comments as “divisive” over the weekend.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” said Goodell. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”