“This is bigger than football”: why NFL players are kneeling in defiance of Trump

The president has picked a fight with the closest thing the US has to a religion – American football.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The personal joy Donald Trump seems to take in going to war with American institutions is already legendary. He has taken aim at celebrities, politicians, and nationally revered institutions.

During the campaign, he hit out at senator John McCain for having been captured and tortured in Vietnam. He has even gone after the Pope. But this weekend he may have finally picked a fight with someone his own size: the National Football League. 

Make no mistake; the influence of Christianity may run deep in American political life, but the closest America comes to a national religion is football.

Like many of Trump's dumb feuds, it came out of a clear blue sky, starting as a riff at a rally on Friday against one of Trump's supporters' favourite bugbears – peaceful protest by black athletes against police violence.

“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!’” Trump said, speaking to a nearly all-white crowd. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”

Trump then doubled down on his comments on Twitter. “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, you’re fired. Find something else to do,” he wrote on Saturday.

He was referencing a protest that began a year ago, when Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem, which is sung before every football game, in protest against racial injustice and police violence.

Kaepernick's protest followed a year in which it seemed barely a week went by without new footage emerging of people of colour being brutalised or killed by police officers – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and others. Their killers rarely, if ever, faced greater consequences than suspension with pay.

Data collated by the Guardian US showed the scale of the problem: there had been an astonishing 266 killings by police of black people in 2015, the year before Kaepernick's protest, and black people were almost three times as likely to be the victims of police violence as white people.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The protest was highly-covered and, at the time, did not serve Kaepernick well. While many came out in support of him, he also received a torrent of abuse after his protest became a talking-point in the Republican primary, with Trump and other candidates regularly abusing him from the campaign trail and Fox News gunning for his blood. But the controversy had reduced to a quiet simmer until Trump took the stage in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday.

The firestorm re-ignited with a whoosh. The gall of it was extraordinary, considering that it came hot on the heels of Trump's equivocation about a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where a woman had been killed by a white supremacist ploughing his car into a group of counter-protesters. The president had, instead of condemning the violence, said there were bad people “on both sides”.

In that context, this attack on an entirely peaceful and symbolic NFL protest was seen by many to be proof of what has long been suspected: that the president is a racist, or is at least openly applying racist double standards.

The NFL, showing a level of backbone which had been less in evidence after Kaepernick's original protest, pushed back against Trump's comments. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players,” league commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released on Saturday morning.

Sunday is football game-day, and the impromptu war that Trump started with America's most popular sport was escalating fast as it approached. Now, entire teams joined Kaepernick's stance, deciding to stay in the locker-room or refusing to stand during the anthem.

“We’re not going to play politics,” Mike Tomlin, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, told CBS news. “We’re football players, we’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn’t have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t have to be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to. So we’re not participating today.”

The Steelers did not take the field at all until after the anthem had played.

In a game that started early because it was being played across the Atlantic in London, players from the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars kneeled and joined arms in protest during the anthem before the game. Before their game in Buffalo, New York, players from the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos kneeled in protest. As games began across the country on Sunday, many others did the same.

Not everyone supported the protest when it first started. Some football fans already saw Kaepernick's protest as a rightful exercise of his rights under the First Amendment. Others, who are more in Trump's camp, had disingenuously decried Kaepernick's original protest as “politicising” their sport.

Well, Trump has well and truly politicised it now. Football fans are now in the position of being forced to pick a side, and if the president continues to position himself the way he has, he risks them choosing football over him. Even former close allies such as Bob Kraft, the billionaire owner of the last Super Bowl winners – the New England Patriots – who is a friend of Trump, said he was “deeply disappointed” at the president's comments.

"What you just saw was a variety of responses with the theme of unity," an NFL front office source told CNN. "All across the league, owners, coaches and players came together to decide what was best for them. If Trump thought he could divide the NFL, he was wrong."

And it's not just football that Trump finds himself in a brawl with. After basketball star Steph Curry rejected his invitation to appear at the White House, Trump, in a childish “you can't quit, you're fired”, rescinded his invitation and slammed Curry on Twitter. This led to a backlash from other NBA stars, including LeBron James, and fans:

It is hard to overestimate the importance of American football to the country's national psyche. The game's stop-start nature, in which action is split into frenetic “plays” with breaks in between, was a perfect fit for television as it provided natural ad breaks, and the sport grew exponentially as cable TV, with its multitude of channels, spread across the US in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

All sport is, at its core, a vehicle for creating narrative moments, and American football is one of the best machines ever devised for the creation of improvised stories. It is a game of last-minute comebacks and plucky underdogs. A game of tactics and specialists, at its heart a strategic exercise; less a competition of pure athleticism than a chess match with living pieces. 

These days, the Super Bowl is one of the world's most-watched television events worldwide, with the last one drawing 111 million viewers. According to a 2015 poll, more than half of the entire US are football fans.

Trump may finally have picked a fight with an opponent with the muscle and public profile to fight back on his level. As one commentator said, during the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Bengals – just before quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a nail-biting overtime victory: “Anything can happen in the National Football League”.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.