President Donald Trump obviously found a snappy new applause line when he gave a speech in Alabama on Sept. 22. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” Trump riffed, “When somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired!’ ”
It went over as Trump hoped, delighting his hardcore supporters, so now we are having a national moment of flagomania. Trump is hitting the theme hard, with at least 21 tweets or retweets, so far, deriding pro athletes who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest. NFL watchers seem to be talking more about kneeling than touchdowns or game scores. As Trump himself has eagerly pointed out, the NFL’s TV ratings are down and booing of kneelers at stadiums is up.
How Trump is losing
But Trump isn’t winning. In fact, he’s losing, and this is going to become more and more apparent as his crusade against kneelers progresses. Within a few weeks, it will almost certainly peter out.
First, the teams. Trumpian demagoguery is meant to divide and conquer: sow dissension, turn people against each other, fragment communities. Trump’s anthem crusade has failed to do that. In fact, it’s actually surprising how effectively the individual teams have found ways to respond that everybody can live with. On many teams, some players stood and some kneeled during the anthem following Trump’s tirade, with the players typically locking arms as a sign of solidarity, whatever each player’s personal viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that.
[Read more: Trump’s feud with the NFL dates back to 1986.]
The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room during the anthem, spending the controversial moment out of sight. One player, Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, was uncomfortable with that, so he stepped onto the field and stood before the flag, saying later that going it alone made him feel “embarrassed.” On Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys and several of their front-office honchos, including owner Jerry Jones, kneeled in unison, then stood for the anthem. Clever. Touching, even.
Consider what hasn’t happened. Trump is trying to goad NFL team owners into firing players who kneel for the anthem. If any owner took the bait, it probably would ignite a bigger crisis, precisely what Trump wants. But none of them has signed on with Trump. At least half of the league’s 32 owners have publicly disagreed with Trump, and not a single owner has voiced agreement with him. Meanwhile, there is practically no dissension among the players. Undoubtedly they have differing viewpoints, but they have essentially agreed to disagree, in a far more civil way than Trump treats those he disagrees with.
Next, the sponsors. The NFL runs on money, and the best way to hurt the league is to persuade sponsors to bail. But Trump has failed here, too, since none of the sponsors has done much of anything. A few have issued mealymouthed statements meant to please everybody and say nothing. Nike is one sponsor that took a stand, declaring that the company “supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” Sorry, Trump.
The NFL fallout
A few individual players may suffer financially for the positions they’ve taken. A car dealership chain in Denver apparently decided not to renew an endorsement deal for Broncos linebacker Von Miller, after he knelt during the anthem following Trump’s remarks. So he’ll forgo a few bucks. But that’s not a mark of shame. If anything, it indicates the kind of principles Americans largely feel their politicians lack — the willingness to put your money where your mouth is. Miller’s stock has risen, not fallen.
Finally, the fans. No doubt some of them are genuinely offended by players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, even without Trump goading them on. They have a choice to make: Quit football on a matter of principle, the way Miller gave up income for something he felt was important, or stop complaining and enjoy the game. Aside from Trump’s base, public opinion is clearly turning against Trump when it comes to the NFL, and fans will move with it. Plus, pro football has had undesirable elements before this, most notably the ugly spectacle of star players disciplined for abusing women. The NFL survived that. The flag flap won’t do any worse damage.
Besides, Trump himself will likely lose interest. There are two types of targets Trump attacks: pop-up targets and golden oldies. The oldies are bogeymen (and women) he can attack over and over when he needs to rev up his base: Hillary Clinton, illegal immigrants, China, “fake news.” In between, Trump tests pop-up targets to see if he can move the needle on a new issue. These include the car companies, John McCain, Mika Brzezinski, Hollywood, and now the NFL. They’ve all survived Trump just fine, which usually means it’s time for Trump to find something else to go after.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman