Much Method to the Madness in Trump’s Never-Ending Obsession with NFL Protests

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Trump is at it again, and again, and again. The “it’ is his absolutely manic frenzy to hector, harass, and lambast NFL players for protesting the anthem. And to hector, harass and lambast NFL owners for seemingly allowing the players to protest.

His latest apoplectic fit over a handful of players taking a knee, raising their fists, or staying in the locker room when the anthem is played was vintage Trump. He essentially said the players couldn’t “define” what they are protesting. That’s another way of calling the players to stupid to know what they’re protesting.

Never mind that only a relative handful of NFL players have ever taken a knee, let alone spoken out publicly about police abuse and racial injustice. Or, that the NFL owners have tried everything they could to crack down on the protests, up to an including some of the more froth at the mouth owners such as Dallas Cowboy’s Jerry Jones, have threatened to do. And that’s to boot any player on his team who protests out the door.

Then again, a few tepid protests by a few players over the anthem, isn’t, and never was, the issue anyway. The proof: Trump himself. He glowingly told friends at a private dinner a year ago, “It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on.” Translated: Trump could almost pay the players to protest because he has a made-in-heaven issue to rile up his base. And almost as good. He has the perfect issue to do what he does best, deflect, distract, and get the media and tongues wagging about yet another marginal issue.

The NFL attack ploy works to near perfection. The much-watched NFL season is set to kick off. The mid-term elections are only a few weeks away. The GOP is sweating bullets over how to blunt the so-called “blue vote wave” that would snatch the House back to the Democrats.

Trump doesn’t have to manufacture the NFL protest issue to get attention. It’s been an ongoing subject of debate within and without the sports world since the day former San Francisco quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, took his ill-fated knee and assured himself a permanent ban from the NFL. But it still comes back to titillating his base. Legions of them are NFL junkies.

There is just enough anecdotal stuff from informal polls, surveys, angry letters from fans and hostile talk about Kaepernick from sports radio jocks as evidence that a lot of them don’t like what Kap did, and what the players who protest racial injustice are doing. Just to make sure, Trump went off script and shouted at an Alabama campaign rally a year ago that the NFL owners should give Kap and anyone else who disrespects the flag and the national anthem a swift kick out of the NFL. The crowd ate it up, because many of them are exactly the kind of fan that the NFL owners have in mind who would rebel against having Kap on an NFL team.

The owners, for their part, walk a thin tightrope in trying to appease Trump and damp down the players. While on the other hand, mindful, that the NFL is mostly a league of black players, and they are the ones who make the game and the box office for the league. Though only a handful of players have continued to protest, there’s evidence that many more of the players are in sympathy with the protests. And even the ones who aren’t, still don’t like the idea of Trump telling grown men what they can and can’t do in their profession.

Trump, though, is on pretty safe ground both politically and with the NFL owners. He and most of them are literally on the same team politically. They are conservative Republicans who often generously bankroll GOP presidential candidates, and with some, that included Trump. So, when Jones demands that Cowboy players must stand at rapt attention during the playing of the national anthem, it is in keeping with Trump and the NFL’s long standing, deep rah rah of the military, the flag, and endless ritual patriotic displays before games.

There’s one more plus to Trump’s nagging the NFL about the anthem protests. That is race. It’s never far from the surface in how many fans and sports jocks view the league. They take shots constantly about the supposed thug, and criminal, and bad behavior of the players This is thinly disguised pandering to the worst crime and violence stereotypes about blacks. It has a big resonance with many fans. And since Trump could care less about offending black voters who overwhelming hate his guts anyway there’s nothing to lose by haranguing the players.

The NFL season will stretch out through November and the mid-term elections, so expect more harangues about the “unpatriotic” NFL players. There’s much method to this Trump madness.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly
Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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