Three weeks ago, President Trump was widely criticized for fanning racial divisions and inflaming the culture wars after he denounced a black NFL player for kneeling during the national anthem, casting the move as unpatriotic and an affront to the country.
The player had intended the demonstration to call attention to police brutality against African Americans.
What began as an impromptu, crowd-pleasing line at a Trump rally in Huntsville, Ala., to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now!” sparked a national debate over free speech, patriotism, racial identity and cultural values. Rather than back off and try to unify the nation, Trump upped the ante relentlessly — and on Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell capitulated.
Concerned about backlash from fans, Goodell sent a letter Tuesday to all 32 team owners asking them to support a plan to "move past this controversy" and ensure that players stand during the anthem "to honor our flag and our country."
Goodell's letter was leaked publicly just hours after Trump again had taken to Twitter to bash the nation's most profitable sports league for "disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country" and threaten to revoke its tax breaks, which a White House aide later defined as public subsidies for sports stadiums. Last weekend, in what appeared to be a preplanned act, Vice President Pence walked out of a game between his hometown Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers after several of the 49ers players knelt during the anthem.
To Trump and his supporters, the outcome Tuesday amounted to a clear-cut political victory — and validation of the president’s tactics.
“We would certainly support the NFL coming out and asking players to stand, just as the president has done,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said when asked about Goodell’s letter. “We support the national anthem, the flag and the men and women who fought to defend it, and our position hasn’t changed on that front. We’re glad to see the NFL taking positive steps in that direction.”
In his letter, Goodell stated that the dispute over the anthem "is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game." Television ratings have declined this season, alarming the league's advertisers, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones this week warned he would bench players if they do not stand at attention.
Goodell said a plan would be put forward during the NFL’s annual fall owners’ meeting this weekend. It remains unclear, however, whether players and team owners will abide by the commissioner’s wishes.
Trump had been criticized by a wide array of Democrats, professional athletes and media pundits for focusing on the anthem issue after he first raised it during the raucous rally in Huntsville in late September.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” Trump thundered, eliciting roars of approval. He did not name former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had initiated the demonstrations last year in the wake of several high-profile police shootings of young African American men.
Critics viewed Trump’s attack as a craven attempt to motivate his largely white political base. Most of the players who had protested to that point were black, and Trump’s comments came a month after he had equivocated in his denunciations of hate groups after violence that had left a woman dead during a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
But Trump supporters said that, on the national anthem, the president successfully baited his rivals into a debate on his terms that they were bound to lose.
“It was a smart play on Trump’s part. He wrapped himself in the flag and goaded players and commentators and the NFL in general to attack him,” said Dale Jackson, a conservative radio host from Huntsville who supported Trump in the general election.
To Jackson, Trump's ploy had the added benefit of distracting supporters from his legislative woes on Capitol Hill, where efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act have failed and Trump's agenda is stalled.
"What else good do they have going for them?" Jackson asked of the White House. "Politically, this works in their favor. Why not keep this going? . . . He knows what he's doing sometimes."
The morning after the rally, as criticism mounted, Trump tweeted that he no longer would welcome the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and their star guard, Stephen Curry, who is black, to be honored at the traditional White House ceremony. Curry, who has played golf with President Barack Obama, had been quoted in news stories saying he did not want to attend over disagreements with Trump and his policies. "Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Steph Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" Trump tweeted.
Each of the president’s attacks was met with outrage. But Trump allies said the president’s long-held strategy is to hit back harder against his critics, and he contrasted his attacks on the NFL and NBA by offering enthusiastic support for the patriotism of NASCAR fans — who are mostly white and from the South.
Trump also tweeted numerous times about the NFL anthem controversy two weeks ago just as Puerto Rico was being pounded by Hurricane Maria, drawing complaints from some local officials that the president was ignoring their plight.
"This is yet another example where President Trump has weighed in on an issue that might not be front and center for every American, but it evokes a lot of emotion for people across the country in a way that many of the media elites never quite get," said a former Trump campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his current employer did not authorize him to speak on the record. "Most folks in Middle America look at this as a no-brainer: 'Of course we should be standing for the national anthem,' " this person said, adding, "Who would have thought the NFL would have caved so quickly?"
On Tuesday, Trump honored the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the White House. He hailed them for contributing to hurricane relief efforts and praised the all-white team with more than a dozen foreign players as “incredible patriots.”