On one of the most news-heavy days of his administration — Russia; wiretapping; Ivanka’s office — Donald Trump also talked a little football. His comments about Colin Kaepernick won’t amount to much of a scandal and probably won’t get much of an airing outside the initial cable-sports radio news blitz. But like every time Trump talks sports, they offer a fascinating peek inside the Trumpian playbook.
At a rally in Kentucky on Monday night, Trump proclaimed that he was the reason the former 49ers quarterback — who refused to stand for the national anthem last season — remains unsigned. “[NFL owners] don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” he said. Begging for what wrestlers call a “cheap pop,” he added, “The people of Kentucky … like when people actually stand for the American flag.” It was Trump’s second blast at Kaepernick. During the campaign, he suggested that if Kaepernick didn’t like the anthem, he ought to move somewhere else.
Why would Trump wade into an issue that’s more likely to burn up the phones at KNBR? There are a couple of reasons. First, football is a political issue, and there has emerged something of a conservative case for the game. In the age of CTE, the conservative case for football holds that the sport is a bedrock of American culture that must be protected from political correctness, the weenies of the nanny state, etc. At a campaign rally in October, Trump mocked the NFL’s new concussion protocols: “Uh-oh, got a little ding on the head?”
Kaepernick entered this debate through a side door, challenging football’s jingoism rather than its violence. It hardly mattered. At that moment, in Trump’s mind, Kaepernick put on the jersey of the opposing team.
Which brings us to the second reason Trump is talking Kaepernick. Last summer, Trump aides told The New York Times that a model for Trump’s Republican National Convention — and, indeed, for his whole campaign — was Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968. Like Nixon, Trump would pit flag-loving hard hats against America-last peaceniks in a battle for the country’s soul.
By protesting racial inequality, Kaepernick became a player in this game as surely as John Carlos and Tommie Smith had when they raised their fists at the ’68 Olympics. So, too, did the six New England Patriots that refused to pay a post–Super Bowl visit to the White House — a move that allowed Trumpists, in turn, to charge the players with being unpatriotic.
“[No Obama opponent] boycotted Obama because he’s black, did they?” said former Vikings quarterback and Trump supporter Fran Tarkenton. “No. They all went there because he was our president. And you respect our president. No matter whether you’re for him or not.”
Trump’s interest in sports is as opportunistic as his interest in reality TV. He compared the reception he got for a speech at CIA headquarters to the cheers Peyton Manning got for winning the Super Bowl. He credited a bizarre and inaccurate story about voter fraud to the golfer Bernhard Langer. (Langer denied being the original source of the tale.) On a February visit to the Smithsonian’s new African American history museum, Trump took a shine to a Muhammad Ali quote, “I shook up the world.” Ali was on the opposite side of the culture war Trump is trying to rerun.
The kind reading of these stories is that Trump is using sports as a more cynical political prop than his predecessor did. The unkind reading — offered by Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf — is that Trump is just a shameless front-runner, forever in search of a fellow “winner.” I am the greatest!
This may be overthinking it. Depending on your school of thought, by talking about Kaepernick Trump was saying whatever had flickered across his mind or creating a handy diversion. Monday was of one of his “worst days as president,” according to NBC News, with FBI Director James Comey not only saying that the bureau was investigating Russian meddling in the election but calling Trump’s charge that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama baseless. The GOP health care bill is in grave peril. Football talk gives Trump — and his Twitter account — an illusion of control he’ll never have over the legislative process. If Trump can’t be Nixon, maybe he can become Peter King.