The no. 1 priority of the president of the United States appears to be feuding with professional athletes and sports organizations. At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday night, Donald Trump urged team owners to cut any NFL player who protests racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field”; on Saturday, he responded to Steph Curry’s comments that he would not visit the White House following the Golden State Warriors’ NBA title by disinviting the star, which isn’t how invitations work; Trump then posted three more tweets about the NFL: two about how players “making millions of dollars” “should not be allowed to disrespect ... our Great American Flag,” and a third responding to a statement made by league commissioner Roger Goodell.
Trump is now quadrupling down on his beef with the NFL, issuing a pair of Sunday morning tweets stating that fans have the power to force teams into action against protesting players:
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
...NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
First, a quick fact check: Trump is correct that the NFL’s television ratings have fallen, but it seems unlikely that development has anything to do with protests. Viewership for MLB games, hockey games, and NASCAR races are down as well, suggesting a general drop-off in sports viewership rather than a protest-focused disinterest in NFL games. And while polls reveal that some fans say they watched fewer NFL games last season because of protests, those numbers are dwarfed by fans who say they watched the same amount or even more football than they have in the past. And of course, there are plenty of people who said they wouldn’t watch games this fall for the opposite reason—those who support Colin Kaepernick, and are upset that he remains unsigned. Trump is outright wrong about the fact that NFL attendance is “way down”—it was up last year.
Regardless of the factual accuracy of Trump’s tweets, it’s easy to read between the lines. He wants his followers to avoid the NFL on Sunday, to prove that protesting players won’t be tolerated in Trump’s America. He has paid outsize attention to TV ratings since his time as a reality show host, and has admitted that ratings factor into his decision-making process as president. Now he’s hoping this weekend’s ratings provide a referendum on whether America stands with him or with the NFL.
It’s an odd battle to choose. It’s bizarre enough that a sitting president is urging Americans to boycott any American business. But it’s especially surreal that he’s chosen the nation’s most profitable sports league as a rival. Especially because the NFL’s owners—the ones who stand to be hurt by a boycott—have been generally supportive of Trump to date. Eight donated a combined $7.25 million to his inaugural committee, and the league’s marketing arm chipped into his inauguration fund. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft is his friend; Jets owner Woody Johnson is Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Suffice it to say, Trump’s comments will not bring an end to NFL player demonstrations. Many reports indicate that more players than ever will protest during the national anthem on Sunday, a showing that started before the Ravens-Jaguars matchup in London:
Members of the Ravens and Jaguars kneeled during the national anthem in response to Trump tweets including Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis. pic.twitter.com/fGrfIoRtdz— Jessie (@JMKTV) September 24, 2017
Trump’s tweets urge owners to cut every player who protests, but the response to those tweets will make answering that plea practically impossible. Sure, NFL franchises could hypothetically shun one player—Kaepernick remains the best healthy player at his age to go completely unsigned in league history—but no team is going to cut 10, 15, or 20 percent of its roster.
Trump is picking a fight with no foreseeable end. For as long as he addresses players kneeling as the problem instead of the reasons those players are kneeling, there will be protests in the NFL. And Trump seems to believe that he can use resentment against rich athletes—rich black athletes, in particular—as a form of political capital.
The NFL has long felt like part of the establishment. Improbably, Trump seems determined to make watching football part of #TheResistance.