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Trump’s full-blown culture war with the NFL

President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem, during a rambling speech in Alabama Sept. 22. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

President Trump has flirted with many culture wars before. This weekend, he may have set off a full-fledged one with lasting implications.

On Friday night, Trump said NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. Then Saturday, he disinvited the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, from a White House visit because superstar Stephen Curry suggested that the team should skip it in protest of Trump.

All of this comes shortly after the White House suggested that ESPN host Jemele Hill should be fired for calling Trump a “white supremacist.” All three events pit Trump against black sports figures whose political statements he believes are out of bounds or unpatriotic. And the entire situation seems to be reaching a tipping point.

The NFL and players from both the NFL and the NBA have fought back with statements offering varying degrees of criticism of the president, and Trump fired back against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Saturday night. By Sunday morning, he was back at it, suggesting a boycott of the NFL.

The question from here is what happens in the stands going forward. And this could test the resolve of everyone involved, not just on issues of race and free speech but also — importantly —  economically.

It's not difficult to see a whole bunch more NFL players joining what Colin Kaepernick started by kneeling during the national anthem — not to protest police treatment of African Americans, as Kaepernick did, but to protest Trump and assert their First Amendment rights. Already on Saturday night, Oakland Athletics player Bruce Maxwell became the first player in Major League Baseball to kneel during the anthem.

Update: Before kickoff  of the first NFL game on Sunday morning, the majority of players for both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, along with some  staff and owners, locked arms and knelt during the anthem. Similar protests were expected in stadiums across the country. 

If and when that happens, Trump is urging fans to vote with their pocketbooks and to register their displeasure by not going to games. It has become a battle of wills — a war in which, for once, there may actually be a winner. If NFL players do suddenly kneel in larger numbers, Trump will push the boycott and try to pressure the league economically. If players continue to kneel and the league doesn't really pay a price and/or Trump backs off, Trump will look weak. If NFL players stop kneeling (which seems very unlikely) or the league distances itself from these protests, Trump will look like he won.

Whoever you think is morally right in this situation, that winner is not a foregone conclusion. Polls have suggested rather limited backlash against the league for the national anthem protests thus far. In a J.D. Power survey from July, just 3 percent of NFL fans said that they were watching less football and that it was because of the protests. Among the relatively few fans who said they were watching less football (10 percent of all fans), the protests were the No. 1 reason offered, but this was not a massive swath of fans.

That said, whatever the reasons, the NFL is experiencing declining viewership dating to last season, and there are some signs of attendance problems early this year. And while Goodell's statement earned Trump's ire, plenty on the left have criticized the commissioner as not going far enough to defend the anthem protests — a reflection of the financial danger he sees in this whole controversy. Even in his statement Saturday, Goodell didn't weigh in on whether he thinks the protests are inbounds.

The protests have been limited to a few players on a few teams, and this was before the president of the United States told his devoted base to boycott. Things are escalating, and both sides seem to be onboard with that escalation. And if enough fans decide that their loyalty to their political team is more important than their loyalty to their NFL team, this could be much bigger than just a war of words over a September weekend.