First a disclaimer – no one here in Los Angeles gives a damn about professional football. Yes, the Los Angeles Rams are back in town, but that’s a yawn. They began in 1936 as the Cleveland Rams, and after winning the 1945 NFL Championship, the franchise moved to Los Angeles. They played their home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before moving into Anaheim Stadium in 1980 – and after the 1994 season they moved to St. Louis – and no one missed them much. After a few good years here they had fallen apart and there were stadium issues. They wanted a new one. The taxpayers said no – or maybe the problem was Georgia Frontiere – the wannabe opera singer turned showgirl who inherited the team when her fabulously wealthy sixth husband died – Carroll Rosenbloom, who had traded ownership of the Baltimore Colts for ownership of the Rams. His death was a bit mysterious, but no one could prove anything. Los Angeles wasn’t sorry to see that whole freak show leave town.
Georgia wasn’t exactly a football genius, but now they’re back. The Rams returned for the 2016 NFL season. The taxpayers of St. Louis said no to a new stadium there too, but the Rams will get a new stadium here – to share with the San Diego Chargers, who just moved here to become the Los Angeles Chargers. The taxpayers of San Diego said no to a new stadium there too – and the new shared Los Angeles stadium will be mostly privately funded. Both teams know better now. The locals aren’t going to build them billion-dollar stadiums. They’ll have to turn to major corporations like Mercedes-Benz in Atlanta for extra funding – and really, the Rams aren’t very good anymore. They’re an adequate football team. The Chargers are pretty awful. And no one out here cares one way or the other. Professional football is all about the money. It’s hard to cheer for the fabulously wealthy trying to find the ideal city of suckers. No one wants to be a sucker.
That’s the disclaimer – other cities seem to love their professional football teams. And they love America. And this was the weekend that the two didn’t mix. The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke and Abby Phillip explain that:
Some stood. Some kneeled. Some remained in the locker room, choosing to speak through their absence from the NFL’s pregame ceremonies, in which the American flag is displayed and the national anthem sung. But from London to Los Angeles, virtually all NFL players on the sidelines before kickoff of Sunday’s slate of 14 games locked arms with each other in response to President Trump’s three-day campaign demanding that team owners “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem and calling on fans to boycott games if the form of protest continued.
Suddenly, professional football was interesting again:
The silent rebuke to the president, determined independently by each of the 28 NFL teams in action Sunday, represented an unprecedented collective action and show of solidarity among players who battle against one another 16 weeks, some more, each season.
Some, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, were joined on the sideline by their team owners, Shahid Khan, Jeffrey Lurie and Daniel Snyder, respectively. Most were joined in standing shoulder-to-shoulder by coaches, staff and, in some cases, police officers.
All but two of the NFL’s 32 team owners and CEOs issued statements Saturday night and through Sunday in response to Trump’s crusade against protesting NFL players, which began in earnest during a Friday night rally in Alabama.
That rally in Alabama was the problem:
After making a thinly veiled allusion to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked a national debate by taking a knee during August 2016 preseason games to protest police violence against minorities, Trump called on NFL coaches to get the “son of a bitch” players off the field if they continued to kneel. The president repeated his call with no less intensity on Twitter on Saturday and Sunday morning.
The tenor and substance of those remarks, along with criticism that NFL rule changes for safety’s sake had made the game boring, triggered reactions from many players, coaches and executives. While far from universally in favor of Kaepernick’s method of protest, many owners issued statements defending the rights of players – and all Americans – to express themselves on matters they are passionate about.
Among the more notable was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a vocal Trump supporter and a $1 million donor to his inaugural.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft wrote in his statement released Sunday morning. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
Trump may have made a mess of things:
Before the morning’s first game, Ravens and Jaguars players and coaches locked arms on the sideline – some kneeling, others standing – as the anthem played. It was a scene repeated in 13 other stadiums stateside, from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., to StubHub Center in the Los Angeles suburbs.
Trump had to respond to that:
Trump reacted to the showings by tweeting at 2:20 p.m., “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
Okay, it’s all about the ratings. This president says that is what really matters, in everything, but then things got ambiguous:
Just about the time the NFL’s 4 p.m. games were kicking off, Trump addressed the matter with reporters as he left Bedminster, N.J. “I think the owners should do something about it. It’s very disrespectful to our flag and our country.”
He bristled at the suggestion that his comments had inflamed racial tensions, saying, “I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.”
Others might disagree, and there was this:
He also denied that he wants his supporters to boycott the NFL.
“No, no, no – I don’t,” Trump told reporters after returning to the White House on Sunday evening. “They can do whatever they want.”
However, the nonprofit group America First Policies launched a Facebook ad Sunday urging supporters to stand with the president by turning off NFL games.
That may make Donald Trump happy, actually, as the New Yorker’s David Remnick explains here:
Every day, and in countless and unexpected ways, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, finds new ways to divide and demoralize his country and undermine the national interest. On Tuesday, he ranted from the lectern of the U.N. General Assembly about “Rocket Man” and the possibility of levelling North Korea. Now he has followed with an equally unhinged domestic performance at a rally, on Friday evening, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he set out to make African-American athletes the focus of national contempt.
In the midst of an eighty-minute speech intended to heighten the reelection prospects of Senator Luther Johnson Strange III, Trump turned his attention to NFL players, including the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and asked a mainly white crowd if “people like yourselves” agreed with his anger at “those people,” players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism.
“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 continued. “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.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Trump’s one-million-dollar-donor and his good friend, passed on that sort of popularity, and Remnick sees this:
“People like yourselves” – “Those people” – “Son of a bitch” – this was the same sort of racial signaling that followed the Fascist and white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is no longer a matter of “dog whistling.” This is a form of racial demagoguery broadcast at the volume of a klaxon. There is no need for Steve Bannon’s behind-the-scenes scriptwriting. Trump, who is desperate to distract his base from his myriad failures of policy, from health care to immigration, is perfectly capable of devising his racist rhetoric all on his own.
But it’s more than that:
In these performances, Trump is making clear his moral priorities. He is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself – which, at this point, should come as no surprise to any but the willfully obtuse. Trump, who began his real-estate career with a series of discriminatory housing deals in New York City, and his political career with a racist calumny against Barack Obama, has repeatedly defined his Presidency with a rhetoric that signals solidarity to resentful souls who see “the Other” as the singular cause of their troubles. Trump stokes a bilious disdain for every African-American who dares raise a voice to protest the injustices of this country.
And lest there be any doubt about his intentions or allegiances, Trump tweeted this afternoon, “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.”
And if that wasn’t enough, there was this:
In addition to urging the NFL’s owners to fire any politically impertinent players, Trump also disinvited the NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House after one of the team’s stars, Stephen Curry, voiced hesitation about meeting with the President.
Twitter was alight with players and others rushing to the support of those on the receiving end of Trump’s barbs.
“Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!” LeBron James said. Many professional athletes tweeted in the same spirit as James, and even the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has hardly been stalwart in the interests of his players, issued a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and showing an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the league and its players. Compared to the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, who has been consistently anti-racist and supportive of the players’ right to protest, Goodell is a distinctly corporate figure, whose instinct is nearly always to side with the owners. (At least six NFL owners each contributed a million dollars, or more, to Trump’s Inauguration fund, including Woody Johnson, of the Jets, Robert Kraft, of the Patriots, and Daniel Snyder, of the Redskins.)
That was bad enough, and then add this detail about Trump and those football players:
Not only does he try to isolate them as ungrateful anthem-defiling millionaires, he also could not care less about their health. No matter how many reports are issued making clear that the sport has left countless players suffering from all manner of neurological diseases, Trump is unimpressed. CTE injuries in football seem to be no more a reality to him than climate change.
At a rally in Lakeville, Florida, during the Presidential campaign, Trump aroused the crowd by insisting that the NFL, which has hardly gone to great lengths to protect its players, was “ruining the game” by inflicting penalties on players who, say, hit the quarterback too late. “See, we don’t go by these new and very much softer NFL. rules. Concussion? Oh! Oh! ‘Got a little ding in the head – no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”
This was about manliness. Those big black football guys are whining wimps, but Donald Trump says he’s never said anything about race, that this has nothing to do with race or anything else.
Remnick isn’t buying that:
What Trump is up to with this assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is obvious; it is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. He doesn’t care to grapple with complexity of any kind, whether it’s about the environment, or foreign affairs, or race, or the fact that a great American sport may, by its very nature, be irredeemable. Rather than embody any degree of dignity, knowledge, or unifying embrace, Trump is a man of ugliness, and the damage he does, speech after speech, tweet after tweet, deepens like a coastal shelf. Every day, his Presidency takes a toll on our national fabric.
Perhaps so, but one conservative, David Frum, sees this:
President Trump apparently slept on it overnight and woke up early on Sunday morning thinking: “Yes, I will fight a cultural war against black athletes.”
In two Sunday morning tweets, Trump urged a boycott of the National Football League until owners punished players who refused to stand for the national anthem, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice – capping a weekend of taunting and trash-talking that began at his Alabama rally Friday night. He’s now created a situation in which it will seem almost unmanly for black athletes, and not only football players, not to take a knee during the anthem. If they stand for the anthem, they will seem to do so at Trump’s command. How can they not resist?
That’s the trap, but this had to happen:
Trump had another of his bad weeks last week. His secretary of health and human services was exposed for chartering expensive private jets at public expense. His Environmental Protection Agency director is charging the Treasury for a security detail big enough to impress Turkish President Recep Erdogan. One more attempt to repeal Obamacare disintegrated in the Senate. A star basketball player publicly refused an invitation to the White House. The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for Trump’s onetime campaign chair, Paul Manafort, while the campaign was still underway…
He had to react:
When in trouble, Trump habitually falls back on the same trick: enflaming conservative cultural grievances. American flags, Confederate memorials – anything will do. You would not know it from the Twitter debate, but Trump shrewdly seized the majority side of the Robert E. Lee statue debate: An August YouGov poll found that only about one-quarter of the country agrees that such monuments should be seen as symbols of racism. The polling on standing for the national anthem will presumably be even more lopsided.
Trump, the least popular first-year president in the history of polling, is always scouting for opportunities to depict his opponents – in every other way this country’s dominant mainstream – as somehow un-American. Smarting from his popular-vote loss in the November 2016 election, Trump later that month tweeted a demand that flag-burners forfeit their U.S. citizenship. He seems to have hoped that he could goad some Trump opponents into actually committing such a burning for the cameras. Unfortunately for him, only a tiny group of oddballs obliged.
But now, in more trouble, Trump is adding extra force to his goading. He’s hoping to provoke a dynamic in which many of the country’s most famous and most visible African Americans appear en masse to disrespect the anthem and the flag. In so doing, they will fortify Trump’s own claim that these symbols properly belong to him and to his supporters.
Own the flag. That seems to be the plan, but Frum looks at the other side of this:
The background fact to all of Trump’s noisy nationalism is that this administration is more shot through with disloyalty, subversion, and hostile foreign influence than any administration in recent history. The president’s son at a minimum welcomed the prospect of cooperation with Russian spies in the 2016 election – and possibly did much worse than that. The president’s personal finances appear to have been rescued in the crisis of 2008 by an infusion of funds from Russian sources. The president’s campaign chair and his first national-security adviser both took pay from Kremlin-linked sources in amounts still not yet fully disclosed.
As yet, there has been no showing of any illegality. But what is known suffices to wipe away any Trump claim to uphold the flag and the republic against others.
If so, Frum has this advice:
Why play ball with him? Why give him what he wants?
Don’t take the knee. Stand for the flag; hand on heart for the anthem – and then put your signature to the demand that this least American of administrations be investigated down to its bottommost murk and filth.
There is that, but Jonathan Chait is more interested in Trump’s odd miscalculations:
Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem is an event a more talented or personally disciplined racial demagogue than Donald Trump could have fruitfully exploited. Kaepernick’s gesture was rife for hostile interpretation… But rather than seize the mantle of patriotism, Trump has oafishly ceded it to his opponents. He has set off a firestorm of race, sports, and patriotism that is going to end up burning him…
Trump pushed his argument into utter derangement by challenging players’ very right to protest. “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,” he tweeted, “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
That was a bad move:
These comments had two swift effects, each disastrous for the president. First, it turned the question away from the style of the protest to the right to conduct it. The National Anthem is a potent symbol of patriotism, but so is the First Amendment to the Constitution. “No, I don’t agree with Trump,” said University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh Saturday, “That’s ridiculous. Check the Constitution.”
Even pro-Trump coaches and owners began to issue statements attacking the president. “I’m pissed off,” said Rex Ryan. “I supported Donald Trump. These comments are appalling to me… I never signed up for that.”
Second, it turned the pregame drama into an anti-Trump protest. The pregame kneel has now become a spectacle of resistance, with dramatic gestures of white players joining black ones to oppose the crude attacks from the great orange bigot. Fans who might have complained before about politics being inserted into football – as if the bloated displays of military might attached to the NFL were not a form of politics – could no longer miss that Trump was now more likely than anybody else to politicize the game.
And there was this:
Compounding the blunder, Trump articulated no coherent message for his surrogates when, inevitably, they had to defend him. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin offered the lame defense that players “can have their First Amendment rights when they’re off the field.” That is a legally farcical statement made by the worst possible spokesman. Mnuchin is a cartoonish plutocrat, a weenie who leveraged his wealth into marriage with a younger blonde who flaunts her wealth grotesquely, and has treated the government like the court of a French monarch. There is no worse candidate in the administration for a defense of virility and patriotism…
It all went wrong:
Football has a deep place in American culture. Trump’s instinct in Alabama that Americans feel it is under siege, and that it could be weaponized, was a shrewd one. Incredibly, he has turned it into a weapon against himself.
Yes, there’s a movement now. Be a real American! Stand up to Donald Trump!
It didn’t have to be that way. Chait reminds us that President Obama last fall said this – “I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing… but I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
That’s a measured and evenhanded response. Calm down. Both sides have a point. They could try to understand each other. That’s what we do in this country. That’s how the country survives.
Donald Trump doesn’t think that way. President Trump says of these guys that their “owners” should “fire these sons of bitches” – which puts this in the context of ownership. Their “owners” buy and sell and trade these guys amongst themselves – they are their personal property. It’s much like the highly efficient economic system of slavery in the Old South – but it’s not slavery. These players accepted big bucks to become the personal property of even richer white men – and to keep their thoughts and feelings and opinions to themselves. That was their choice. That’s what Steve Mnuchin was saying. President Obama ignored that implicit bargain.
This is two different ways of looking at things. Perhaps the only way out of this mess is for professional football and professional basketball and professional baseball to purge the game of black players – all of them. They think they can just blurt out their thoughts and feelings and opinions. Well, they had their black president. Those days are over. Sit down and shut up – or find other work. This has nothing to do with the flag and patriotism. This is a matter of who owns whom – as personal property.
Donald Trump is a businessman who thinks like a businessman. He thinks that way. That’s also why no one here in Los Angeles gives a damn about professional football. These players accepted big bucks to become the personal property of even richer white men, the personal property of the fabulously wealthy trying to find the ideal city of suckers – but these players are no one’s personal property at all. That’s not America, at least not any longer. Donald Trump didn’t get the memo.
The whole thing is painful – and the Chargers just opened their first season here with three consecutive losses. Who needs this?