National Football League protests are back in the news, and, unsurprisingly, President Trump has taken notice.
The league this past week put on hold a revised policy that would punish players for protesting during the playing of the national anthem as the owners' group and the players' union try to reach a compromise.
On Friday night, Trump dove into the debate, tweeting, “The NFL national anthem Debate is alive and well again — can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”
Team owners approved the policy change at their May meeting, after two years of criticism by the president and others for not stopping players from protesting. Even after the NFL revised its policy, Trump continued to criticize the players. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe they shouldn’t be in the country,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News.
But the new policy incurred significant backlash from those who believe the decision quelled free speech and showed a lack of concern for the impetus behind the protest: frustration with racism in the United States and violence at the hands of police.
The situation was inflamed further this past week when the Miami Dolphins threatened to suspend players who protested. So on Thursday, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to collaborate on a solution before the beginning of the season.
While the president in his Friday-night tweet specified some new repercussions that he deems appropriate for protesting football players (he previously told owners that if they saw a protesting player, they should throw that “son of a bitch” off the field and fire him), his response should come as no surprise for a few reasons:
1. The NFL is newsy again. The league and its player association are in the headlines again because of this hot-button issue as we move closer to the start of football season. Trump, whose attacks on the news media are near daily, clearly consumes large quantities of news from cable television and probably became aware of this latest update while watching TV.
2. Attacking protesters is popular with Trump’s base. Various polls have drawn different conclusions when it comes to support for NFL protests, with individuals’ race, political leanings and other identifiers strongly shaping their stance on the issue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, black Americans, Democrats and millennials are more supportive of the protest than groups that are more supportive of Trump: white Americans, conservatives and older Americans.
Trump has struggled with low approval ratings since entering the Oval Office and must keep the support of his base to maintain his present numbers. Appealing to their cultural anxieties — disapproval and/or fear about the country’s increasing diversification and progressivism — reminds them of why they supported Trump in the first place.
3. He needs a distraction after a week of headlines about and fallout from his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump had one of the worst weeks of his presidency — and that is even according to Republicans. The president and his aides have spent most of the week attempting to make up for Trump’s widely panned summit with the Russian leader. Given his propensity to boast that he is doing a better job than his predecessors, when Trump finds himself on the receiving of much criticism, he tries to divert attention from the issue.
Whatever the president of the United States is discussing is news, so Trump’s desire to change the conversation may be somewhat effective. But much of the American public — and certainly the news media — is capable of focusing on multiple topics at once. The future of the United States’ relationship with Russia and Trump’s perceived mishandling of it won’t fade from the headlines anytime soon. While Trump may think that pivoting to the NFL works in his favor by taking the attention off his foreign-policy mishap, it also reminds people of how controversially he has handled race issues in the country.
Trump has shown himself to be consistent in a few areas — being a culture warrior for his base and failing to use some of his most aggressive language toward Putin. As long as those do not change, you can expect the American public to focus its attention on both topics.