Two weeks ago, the NFL tried to pacify President Trump by instituting a slapdash new national anthem policy. It was such a bad and overt capitulation that many of the same owners who supposedly voted for it started backpedaling like cornerbacks the minute they were asked to explain themselves. But, hey, it was worth the awkwardness and second-guessing as long as they mollified their antagonist-in-chief.
They plugged a leak with chewing gum and expected long-term stability. There. All fixed. Back to talking about football. The ploy included a policy statement that used the phrase “show respect for the flag and the anthem” four times, a nod to Trump’s deceitful oversimplification of the demonstrations to paint the players as anti-military.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell thought it would be foolproof chicanery: Appease the players by allowing them to stay in the locker room during the anthem, but ban demonstrations on the field. The decision was criticized as gutless, shortsighted and nonsensical, but at least Trump could claim victory and leave the league alone.
And in the days since this kowtowing, Trump has celebrated, as expected. He hasn’t given the league a break, however. If anything, the league’s yielding has only emboldened him. The NFL owners sought mercy, those foolish weaklings. But for this president, there is little to be gained by relenting and acting merciful. This is a winning issue for Trump, and considering how badly the league has botched its part, it can only lose from now on, no matter what it does. So whenever Trump needs to energize his base or create a distraction, he can torment the NFL. He can always lay into those disrespectful and ungrateful football players for having the nerve to try to make America care about systemic racism and police brutality.
Congratulations, NFL. You’ve become the political court jester of American sports leagues.
Since the new policy was announced, Trump has said of protesting players: “Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.” And late Monday afternoon, on the eve of the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles’ White House visit, he rescinded the invitation because the majority of the players didn’t plan to attend. He also falsely framed the conflict as the Eagles choosing to boycott just because “they disagree with their president” on protesting during the anthem.
Good thing the NFL placated Trump. If it hadn’t, it would not be able to bask in all this wonderful, newfound peace. It would not be able to enjoy having all of the attention back on the game.
Trump took to Twitter on Monday night and wrote: “The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!”
Okay, a few facts: The Eagles never protested by staying in the locker room last season. They were also one of the few teams that did not have a player kneel or sit during the anthem during the regular season. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and others have raised fists during the anthem at times, and teammate Chris Long often put his arm on Jenkins’s shoulder to show support. They do have one of the most outspoken and socially aware locker rooms in sports. And they disagree with their president on a lot more than the protests.
However, Trump probably wasn’t referencing the Eagles when he tweeted the part about players remaining in the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That was the most prominent of the NFL’s half-measures to make its anthem legislation not seem so callous about social justice. And now it’s something Trump can use as a weapon. Sorry!
Last September, when the NFL responded to Trump’s harsh and profane criticism of these protests with resistance and displays of unity before its Week 3 games, I wrote that the league had won the absurd weekend scuffle by presenting the value of teamwork and compassion. But it was merely one battle; Trump wanted a war, and the issue was too divisive for the league to tolerate for long. Instead of staying connected to the players, the owners used Week 3 as a stunt, nothing more than an ego-driven reaction to Trump telling them what to do, and as soon as it was over, they started quietly pondering how to satisfy and silence the president.
Some owners have had to testify as part of Colin Kaepernick’s grievance. The Wall Street Journal obtained some of what they said last week. In the deposition of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, he detailed a conversation with Trump last fall.
“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump told Jones, according to the deposition. “Tell everybody you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
In order to win, the owners needed to connect with their players, turn the protests into more community action and send a smarter message about a sensitive subject. They could have given their players reason to stop kneeling and using the pregame ceremonies to protest by supporting them and using their influence and a little money to provide another avenue to spark meaningful discussion and possibly even change. The players were trying to speak for the voiceless and make pleas for justice and equality. Most of the owners didn’t even understand that until after meetings with a coalition of players late last season. By then, however, the league was amid a civil war, and it was desperate to negotiate a truce.
And what happened after all those negotiations turned into an agreement to partner on an $89 million fund for social justice causes, which will be doled out over a seven-year period? The owners thought it was over; the players thought it was a good start. The owners returned to being underhanded; the players called them out, but they also failed to stay unified and couldn’t agree on what to ask for next. It was an awful mistake.
So the owners turned their attention to eliminating their presidential scrutiny. Trump played them for fools. Did they really think he would back off when they’re such an easy target? Did they really think he wouldn’t be petty? Did they really think Trump’s rocky 35-year relationship with the NFL would be ignored when he finally has the league whimpering before him?
Two weeks after the NFL gave Trump what it thought he wanted, he started demanding more. Disinviting the Eagles and reigniting the anthem issue are just the latest indicators that Trump cannot be appeased. It’s not really about the anthem, either. It’s about having a convenient sucker to bully and impress a base of supporters who would rather weaponize patriotism than practice all of its complex principles.
Hide your lunch money, NFL. It’s going to be another long and painful year. The suffering won’t stop until Trump wants it to stop. Sorry! You should have known better.