Despite President Trump's harsh words about NFL players protesting racism, there's one thing you aren't likely to hear him say: “Stay in your lane.”
Trump respects — even invites — athletes to weigh in on political matters, as long as they are pro-Trump policies. During the 2016 election, Trump counted legendary boxing promoter Don King, storied former college basketball coach Bobby Knight and NASCAR chief executive Brian France among his supporters.
But support for Trump, who previously made an unsuccessful attempt at buying a football team, hasn't been universal in the sports world.
Just last week, Trump demanded an apology after an ESPN anchor called Trump a white supremacist. And Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the NFL protests during the national anthem, previously called Trump a racist during the 2016 campaign.
Trump returned activist athletes to the national spotlight when he kicked off the weekend by traveling to Alabama to campaign for Sen. Luther Strange (R).
While a huge college football state, Alabama has no NFL team, so some questioned why Trump decided to weigh in on protests within professional football.
Turns out football — one of America's most iconic pastimes — was ripe to become a new cultural battlefield.
Surveys have shown cultural changes in the United States provoke anxiety and discomfort in many Trump supporters. And one of the things Trump is able to do so effectively is tap into the discomfort of those who value yesteryear.
So while championing Strange's “American values,” Trump pivoted to a long-held symbol of Americana: the subject of football.
“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.
The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported:
As the crowd burst into cheers, the president threw his hands into the air and shook his head. For the fourth time that night, the crowd began to chant: “USA! USA! USA!”
“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage,” Trump said. “That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Okay? Everything that we stand for. And I know we have freedoms, and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms, but you know what? It’s still totally disrespectful.”
“This has nothing to do with race or anything else,” Trump said Sunday. “This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.” He tweeted the same refrain Monday morning.
Trump, whose “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan is rooted in nostalgia for many people, is fighting for a piece of American culture that many of his supporters believe is at risk of being taken from them.
In a state like Alabama, alums of the state's college sports teams have been able to transition into cultural influencers in spaces beyond their sport. And the president, a former TV entertainer himself, doesn't have a problem with that — as long as these athletes-turned-influencers reinforce the politics and worldview that Trump campaigned on.
But it's been a while since football teams were occupied only by “good old boys.” Football teams have now included gay players, immigrants, Muslims and even female coaches. To expect athletes to reinforce the traditional politics of an America that has undergone great changes is a refusal to recognize that the football field, like America as a whole, has become far more ideologically diverse than some longtime fans of the game realized.
And many of these athletes who reflect the diversity of America have attacked Trump's ideas and his vision for a United States that they believe is less inclusive.
Kaepernick called Trump “openly racist” during his presidential campaign. Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry said he has “an idea” why the president targets certain athletes despite those actions being “beneath a leader.” And the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James said securing an invitation to the White House is no longer an honor since Trump was elected.
Even Trump supporter and former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan said he was “pissed off” about the president “calling our players SOBs.”
The widespread reaction from NFL players, as well as basketball and baseball athletes, to Trump's words this weekend showed that Americans who have lived a different experience will continue to use their platform to highlight issues they find important.
Some, like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse (R), have argued that these athletes are playing into Trump's trap by giving him much-needed approval from a base whose confidence in him may be declining.
But the larger truth is that activism within professional sports didn't start with Trump and won't likely slow down as long as Trump is in the White House. The question becomes what role will he play in bridging a gap between Americans who see these issues differently. After a very messy election in which issues — including racism in America — caused great tension between citizens, Trump promised to be a uniter during his inauguration speech.
But a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that most Americans — 66 percent — think Trump is showing himself to be the most divisive president in recent history.