At a political rally for Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest. Editor's note: This video contains strong language. (Reuters)
Columnist

How the NFL responds to Donald Trump’s spit-foaming is hardly a test case for whether the republic will stand. Nevertheless, the league is a maker of manners in this country, so it means something that Commissioner Roger Goodell and others are getting it right, striking the perfect calm but resistant tone in response to Trump’s gutter-mouthing, a tone that says, “We’re not your personal WrestleMania, and don’t use us for your sham body slams.” The NFL, faced with whether to play to the basest instincts of the audience, declined. It adhered to civility.

The league is apparently unifying around the notion that, whatever side you may be on in the siege-controversy over NFL players kneeling during the anthem to protest racial injustice, whether you see it as a matter of patriotism, activism or some tangled intersection of the two, it is important to talk about it without calling each other “sons of bitches.”

Who knows what Trump’s real gripe is with the NFL. Maybe he’s still angry that owners denied him entry to their club years ago. Or maybe Colin Kaepernick’s mute but unrepentant protest really arouses his spittle. Or maybe he’s just creating an “Are you not entertained!” circus-maximus spectacle by bull-baiting a wealthy league that is easy to resent by cash-strapped, job-insecure fans.

Regardless, Trump misreads what Americans love about the NFL.

President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem, during a rambling speech in Alabama Sept. 22. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

It’s beloved not so much for its violence or crudity, but rather the skill that results in violence averted. It’s a game, ultimately, of restraint. As opposed to this:

“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 roared at a rally in Alabama on Friday night. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.’ And that owner . . . they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

Not content to drive one wedge, Trump also called for a fan boycott and suggested the league has gone soft, lamenting the fact that amid CTE concerns it has passed rules trying to protect players from head injuries. “Because you know today if you hit too hard — 15 yards!” Trump said. “It’s hurting the game.” As opposed to hurting, you know, the cattle.

Wisely, Goodell and other owners refused Trump’s bid to separate players from fans by playing on their economic and racial differences. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game, and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” Goodell said in a statement. It’s at its best as a league when it has “unity,” Goodell stressed.

Now, you can quarrel over whether Zygi Wilf’s stadium tax breaks are a force for good, or what John Mara has ever really done for New Jersey. But Goodell is basically right: NFL players are a huge boon to their communities, and a unifying force.

You cannot think otherwise after watching what J.J. Watt did, raising more than $37 million for local relief in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Or after observing scores of NFL players fundraise for everything from free mammograms for women to free books for kids.

The vast majority of the men on the field are not spoiled millionaires abusing their freedoms, as Trump charges. Rather, they have worked as hard as any farmers for their short-lived incomes and are dedicated to using their privilege to make things better for the people they play in front of. Brandon Marshall’s Project Borderline foundation combats mental illness. Doug Baldwin is raising money for a family community center in Renton, Wash. And Kaepernick has given away $1 million to various organizations.

Whether you agree with their cause, Kaepernick and his followers see themselves as activists who are simply trying to take “a reasonable and peaceful approach to something that is important to our society and the health and wellness of our communities,” according to Baldwin. Their intent is not to insult the flag but simply to call for equal treatment under it. That may offend you. But it is not un-American.

As the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner once said, “Our country, be she right or wrong: a sentiment dethroning God and enthroning the devil.”

The NFL is in a difficult state: It has a health crisis, an uncertain future in a fragmenting entertainment market, a coming labor fight. And it’s in the midst of a tough but needed conversation about race in a league in which the owners are almost universally white and the players are almost 70 percent black. Kaepernick remains unemployed and no one will admit exactly why, though suspicions abound.

Still, Trump is finding that the league is not easily fractured, even by this divisive issue. Just because owners have certain powers doesn’t mean they want to exercise them. Could an NFL owner fire a player for taking a knee? Certainly. The First Amendment only protects a citizen’s free speech from being interfered with by the government. It doesn’t protect anyone from their employer, and every NFL player is subject to “conduct” clauses. But a player could also bring a grievance and a more than viable argument that firing anyone over the anthem protest is race discrimination or unfair retaliation.

What’s interesting is that none of it has happened.

Instead, what has happened are things like Arthur Blank’s statement, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons standing with the players: “Creating division or demonizing viewpoints that are different from our own accomplishes nothing positive and undermines our collective ability to achieve the ideals of our democracy. The NFL has historically been a strong catalyst for positive change and I’m proud of the way our players, coaches and staff use that platform.”

And the statement from Giants owners Mara and Steve Tisch calling Trump’s statements “offensive and divisive,” and adding, “We are proud of our players, the vast majority of whom use their NFL platform to make a positive difference in our society.”

All of this may be because of what happened in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago. When a dozen players there took knees to earn the ire of police, ownership stepped in, not to fire players but broker talks with local authorities that resulted in players locking arms with cops and firefighters.

Owner Dee Haslam told ESPN.com, “Until we start talking about race and equality and building up neighborhoods and working together, we’re not going to be able to solve the problem.”

Underneath the splintering violence of the NFL is an underpinning of discipline and intelligence. This juxtaposition is what’s really at the heart of its appeal: It’s not a game about pure unleashed power but rather about the constraint of power for a purpose. And in this case, the league showed that it understands the difference between power for a purpose, and power to just throw weight around.

Confronted with Trump’s vulgarity, rather than take him head on, it chose simply to outclass him.

“I do believe that this will be a unifying moment in the sports world,” Baldwin said. “And with as much influence as athletes have on the younger generation, this can be an opportunity for us to change the narrative of society and point to the president as a poor example of what you can become if you remain closed-minded, ignorant and uneducated.”

Long Live the Republic.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.