Sports, to President Trump, has long been about the spectacle more than the spectators.
He has a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame, and briefly and unsuccessfully owned a team in the USFL, the would-be competitor to the NFL that flamed out in the 1980s.
But Trump loves winners, and he is also keenly aware of sports’ ability to inflame passions. The president knew exactly what he was doing by inserting himself into a debate over national anthem protests – making it about him and his views in a battle he’s happy to engage in.
The result is a remarkable cultural moment that speaks to the vast divides in the country, of which Trump is both symptom and accelerant.
Football players of diverse backgrounds linked arms on NFL sidelines on Sunday, joined in many cases by team owners – including some who have supported Trump politically and financially. Other teams stayed inside their clubhouses during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The condemnation from sports’ biggest names – including some individuals with bigger social-media footprints than the president himself – was sweeping.
“He’s now using sports as the platform to try to divide us,” LeBron James said in an online video, responding to the president’s decision to uninvite Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors to the White House.
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If there was any doubt about the president’s wish to inflame a culture war, he announced on Twitter today that he is “so proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans” for not tolerating “disrespecting our Country or our flag.” He’s pitting league against league, athlete against athlete, and fan against fan.
And yes, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this is about race.
In taking on an unsigned Colin Kaepernick, and an issue that’s barely been in the news of late, Trump singled out a small protest movement that was started by a black athlete more than a year ago explicitly to draw attention to police brutality and unfair treatment of African-Americans.
Just last month, Trump infamously waded into racially-charged politics by equating white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, with counterprotesters. He came down squarely on the side of keeping Confederate monuments: “They’re trying to take away our culture,” Trump said.
As Charlottesville unfolded, Trump’s then-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was explicit in casting “identity politics” as a trap for Democrats.
“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” Bannon told The American Prospect. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
The words Trump chose Friday to describe protesting players deserve examination: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’ ”
Since he dropped that sentence into an unrelated political speech Friday night, Trump has kept up the pressure. He’s now calling on NFL owners to get together to decide on how to respond to protests and is suggesting that a boycott of the nation’s most popular sports league might be in order.
This is awkward territory for any president. He is proposing what in effect would be limits to the First Amendment, at least when it comes to the free expression of prominent athletes in sports whose players happen to mostly be minorities.
Trump appeared ready to declare something of an early victory on Sunday, despite the intense blowback his latest crusade has drawn.
“I watched a little bit of it. And I will say that there was tremendous solidarity for our flag and for our country,” the president said after a full slate of NFL games aired on television.
But that solidarity was not in standing – or kneeling, for that matter – with him. The president revealed a determination among athletes to use their platform for causes that matter to them, in the tradition of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Trump wants people to take sides. But, as always in America, both sides can speak for themselves.