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“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.

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 a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia