When George W. Bush was president, there was a notion going around Washington, D.C., that the most powerful man in the world was secretly pining for another job. He wanted to be commissioner of baseball. President Donald Trump’s yearning is a little different. Judging by the last two days, Trump dreams both of running the country—in theory, if not in practice—and being an über sports commissioner who has the power to fire the most famous athletes on the planet. The Bud Selig of presidents wants to be Bud Selig.
Friday night, Trump was in Alabama to promote a Senate campaign. In a typically rambling aside, he got to talking about the NFL national anthem protests: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired! He’s FIRED!” He doubled down on Twitter.
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....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
On Saturday, when it became clear that Steph Curry didn’t want to visit the White House to celebrate the Warriors’ title, Trump dramatically withdrew the invitation. Which led LeBron James, in a gesture where social activism meets the Twitter burn, to refer to Trump as “U bum.”
Trump likes sports, and the role of über commissioner is at least the third sports position he has held. In the 1980s, Trump was the owner of a USFL team who yearned to join the big boys in the NFL. During his campaign, Bobby Knight, Rex Ryan, and others sold him as Coach Trump.
Commissioner is a different gig. It puts Trump in direct combat with the athletes and changes the calculus of the would-be activist. Taking a knee no longer means gesturing at a social crisis and hoping fans grant you the right to your voice. Now, taking a knee means you’re sticking up for teammates that the bum in the White House wants to see fired. Imagine Roger Goodell’s power laced with the ideology of the alt-right. That is the portfolio of Commissioner Trump.
Sunday could be one of the biggest days in the history of sports activism. Trump’s comments were blistered by several NFL players; Intercept writer Shaun King reported that 50 new players may demonstrate at games. It’s almost like Trump recorded a recruiting video for the resistance. It’s worth contemplating why he did.
One of the things that’s amazing about Trump is his ability to take a mostly apolitical part of American life and divide it with his Us-versus-Them worldview. With apologies to Bill Simmons, we can call this idea the Trump Zone. The Emmys are now in the Trump Zone. ESPN is in the Trump Zone.
Team sports, if they weren’t already, are also in the Trump Zone. It’s no longer possible to affect a tone of shrugging neutrality. You have to pick sides. It’s one thing for James to say, “It’s not something I can be quiet about.” It’s another thing for Goodell, who has no interest in partisan street-fighting, to issue a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive.” Trump tweeted about that, too.
Another interesting thing about Trump’s comments: their timing. The last time Trump talked about Colin Kaepernick was March 20—the day James Comey announced that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Similarly, last night’s rant came hours after Senator John McCain sank the Graham-Cassidy bill—the latest, and maybe last, attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If the Republicans are beaten badly in the midterms, Trump is going to talk about Kaepernick for weeks.
It’s possible that Trump’s Kaepernick talk isn’t part of some grand diversion; maybe it just slipped out. In Alabama—where the stay-in-line college game is a way bigger deal than the pros—Trump might have figured dive-bombing Kaepernick played to a sense that Commissioner Trump can keep the rabble-rousers in check.
As a political calculation, there’s just one problem. Commissioners, even good ones, inevitably discover that the job is unpopular. For sports fans, the idea of fearsome power is appealing more in theory than in practice, and commissioners inevitably become the magnet for all the things people hate about the game. Just ask Selig, Roger Goodell, and Gary Bettman.
For a president attuned to the needs of his base, this is a lesson that seems to have escaped him. People love sports. They love athletes. Nobody roots for the guy who runs the league.