With a mix of blunt language and his trademark demand that offenders be fired, Donald Trump ensured that America’s divisions were on open display at National Football League games.
Trump claims victory over NFL players after opening new front in American culture wars
It was a classic Trump move. Addressing a partisan crowd in Alabama on Friday, the president of the United States opened a fresh front in his country’s bitter culture wars, denouncing the small number of American football players who have carried out protests during the national anthem.
With a mix of blunt language and his trademark demand that offenders be fired, he ensured that America’s divisions were on open display at National Football League games on Sunday.
Some fans booed while others raised a fist in the air in support at stadiums up and down the country as hundreds more sportsmen joined the protests, and team owners showed solidarity, galvanising an entire sport into action.
By Monday morning, both sides were claiming victory.
“Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total),” said Mr Trump in a series of tweets. “These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
The flag protests began last year with Colin Kaepernick, the then back-up quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He initially sat for the national anthem played before each game before deciding to kneel.
A small number of sympathisers followed suit, echoing his view that they could not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.
By last week, maybe a dozen players kept up the protests. Kaepernick was not part of them. He no longer has a team, maybe because of his inconsistent form although supporters believe he is the victim of his political stance.
That is how it might have stayed were it not for Mr Trump’s intervention last week.
"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... he is fired',” he told a fired-up audience in Alabama, where he was campaigning for the incumbent Republican senator against an outsider primary challenge.
After a week in New York amid the diplomatic glad-handing of the United Nations, Mr Trump appeared to relish the return to campaign barnstorming.
Rich Galen, a veteran Republican strategist and sports fan, said his words were red meat to his supporters.
“What you are seeing is Donald Trump playing to his base,” he said. “Sometimes he does it because he is bored, sometimes he does it to cover up for something else that happened.”
On Sunday evening, as much of America waited for the Oakland Raiders to take on the Washington Redskins, it emerged that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, had used a private email account to conduct business with administration officials. The details, reported by Politico, will be deeply embarrassing to a president who made so much of Hillary Clinton’s private email server during her time as secretary of state.
But by then the news of the day was dominated by images of football players kneeling for the national anthem or linking arms in a sign of solidarity. Several teams, the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans, remained in their locker room rather than stand for the Star Spangled Banner.
As many as 200 players were believed to have taken part. In statements, many said they were offended by Mr Trump’s choice of language and attacks on individual footballers.
Perhaps most damaging to the president was the reaction of Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a big Trump donor, who said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president”.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal,” he said.
Football was not the only sport targeted by the president. He also announced he was withdrawing a White House invitation to basketball superstar Steph Curry, who said he would vote against the planned visit by his team, the Golden State Warriors.
Mr Trump’s supporters said he understood the mood of the country. Polls suggest a slim majority of people oppose anthem protests and cite the spectacle of kneeling players as a reason for switching off NFL games.
"It's a perfect example of where the president gets it right," said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a long-time friend of Mr Trump.
"It's a win for him at the end of the day."
In so doing, his supporters say, he has made the debate into one about respecting the symbols of America on the one hand, versus the players’ freedom of expression rather than one about race.
At its heart, however, the protests began with America’s troubled history of racial divisions and recent police brutality. And it is not difficult to see how that might affect a league in which an estimated 70 per cent of players are African-American but in which the ownership is almost entire white.
Mr Trump knew exactly which side he was choosing in America’s culture wars, said Mr Galen.
“He has played the race card since he began his campaign. Whether it’s white versus black, white versus brown, or white versus yellow – as he’s doing in North Korea – it’s always about race in Trump’s mind,” he said.