Ahead of the season opener between the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, the president and his allies have resumed their long-standing bashing of NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality affecting communities of color.
Four years after Trump first denounced quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his silent demonstration, shocking scenes this summer of police violently subduing and, at times, killing or severely injuring African Americans have ignited mass demonstrations — shifting public opinion in favor of protesters, according to polls, and prompting sports league executives to take stronger action in support of the social movement.
Yet Trump and his allies have continued to eviscerate the NFL, as the president attempts to tie his criticism of the players to his broader law-and-order reelection message against the protests, which have been violent in some cities. In an interview with sports talk host Clay Travis last month, Trump said he hopes the league does not restart games if the players aren’t standing during the anthem.
“Football is officially dead — so much for ‘America’s sport.’ Goodbye NFL . . . I’m gone,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, wrote in a tweet on Monday, responding to a report that a Dallas Cowboys player said the team’s ownership had given the “green light” to protests.
Their posture contrasts with a widespread sense around the NFL, and among Democratic strategists, that the president is in a weakened position compared with four years ago, and that his efforts to drag the league into another debate in the culture wars could backfire politically with less than two months to go before the election.
“President Trump stands with our brave soldiers and patriots who proudly stand for our national anthem and great flag, not those who choose to disrespect it by kneeling or elect to needlessly cover this demonstration — and the American people agree with him,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. The NFL declined to comment on the issue.
The mass social justice demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis in late May, have resulted in a pronounced shift in public opinion in support of the protests and the players who are speaking out.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in July found that 52 percent of registered voters nationally said it was appropriate for an athlete to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, while 45 percent said it was not appropriate. That compared with 43 percent in 2018 who said kneeling was appropriate and 54 percent who said it was not.
Trump is in “some ways less relevant,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary under President Bill Clinton and worked as executive vice president for communications at the NFL from 2016 to 2018. “The country and the conversation have moved from where the president is, and I don’t know if anyone [at the NFL] will be sitting and monitoring his Twitter feed.”
If the NFL’s television ratings are strong despite Trump’s admonitions, Lockhart said, “it’s a sign of weakness rather than strength for him. If he’s saying, ‘Do not watch the NFL,’ and the NFL sets a record, are people going to say, ‘Trump has lost his mojo’?”
Republican strategists countered that the president’s message on the NFL is consistent with his argument that the violent elements of the social justice demonstrations have escalated dangerously in major cities. Siding with law enforcement, Trump has promoted scenes of violence on his Twitter account and fanned racial grievances. Recent clashes between his supporters and protesters in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore., turned deadly.
Republican pollster Chris Wilson, chief executive of WPA Intelligence, said Trump’s stand against the NFL protests motivates the GOP base and appeals to suburban and older voters who have “grown increasingly concerned that initially legitimate protests have now turned into an excuse for . . . widespread rioting, violence and destruction.”
Trump ally Robert Jeffress, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, acknowledged that “there is more tolerance for the protests today than four years ago.” But he added: “I still think the president speaks for millions of Americans when he says the flag and the anthem ought to be honored.”
The NFL struggled over how to address the protests and Trump’s criticism in 2016 and 2017. Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers after the 2016 season and was not signed by another team. He has accused league owners of blackballing him over his political views.
After Floyd’s death in May, however, the NFL quickly pledged $250 million over a decade to address social issues. Other leagues also have acted. Players in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have demonstrated during the anthem as their seasons have resumed, and the National Basketball Association has prominently embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. NASCAR, which Trump has courted because of its conservative-leaning fan base, banned the Confederate flag at its races.
Speaking to reporters last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell noted the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha and offered his “heartfelt prayers” to victims of “police violence, systemic racism and persistent inequality.” He said the league would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly known as the Black national anthem, before each game.
“I’d much rather be the NFL after George Floyd than before George Floyd,” said Vada Manager, a former Nike executive and founder of Manager Global Consulting Group. The league’s unity on the issue, and the public’s pent-up desire for televised sports amid the pandemic, he said, “is a pretty strong bulwark against the president having an impact to say the games shouldn’t be played because of the protests.”
The shift in public perception over the NFL protests was made clear during Trump’s interview at the White House last month with Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, who told Trump that he initially had been critical of Kaepernick.
But Portnoy suggested that his thinking had changed because “we don’t want them looting and doing all the stuff they’re doing. To me, that’s a silent protest that is far better than going out on the streets and creating crime.”
Trump responded that people could run for public office instead.
“You get groups together and there can be very friendly ways of doing it,” Trump said. He then shifted to blaming violence at protests in Portland on the city’s “radical left” mayor.
Trump’s conservative allies have continued to echo his message. Travis, the sports talk host, this week praised the NFL’s virus safety protocols but said he is “concerned they’re going to blow it with social justice issues and way overdoing it.”
Travis also pointed to the makers of the popular Madden NFL video game decision to include Kaepernick in its 2020 edition, as though he were still an active player.
“This is an example of trying to make the woke community happy,” Travis said. “This is madness. And this, by the way, is one reason I think Donald Trump is starting to surge” in some swing-state polls against Biden.
Biden’s campaign has argued that Trump’s mishandling of the virus, which has killed more than 187,000 Americans, has deprived fans of the ability to attend games safely or even watch them on television, in cases where games were canceled.
State Rep. Joe Tate of Michigan, a Biden surrogate and former NFL practice squad player, said the public is souring on the president’s attacks on the players.
“I believe that they’re understanding and seeing some underlying reasons as to why you’re having protests and having these conversations around race, around issues of police brutality,” Tate said. “People are saying, ‘Hey, they have a point. They should be heard.’ ”
Polling director Scott Clement contributed to this report.