Millions of football fans must have felt grateful to President Trump for provoking the entire National Football League into a goal-line stand last month. The sight of hundreds of players on the sidelines, arms linked with coaches and owners during the playing of the national anthem, not only soothed fears that a disrupted season lay in the NFL’s future, but gave those fans tacit permission to keep on enjoying the games without being too disturbed about brain trauma on the field, collusion in the front office, or demands for racial justice.
Once again, Trump had made it all about Trump, then quickly blitzed on to fresh outrages.
Had anything really happened?
One longtime national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24, was “the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.” From it, he foresaw the possibility of a civic conversation emerging that would create “unity in our communities.”
On the other hand, could that Sunday of Accord have actually been no more than a Hail Mary pass designed to briefly shore up a vulnerable sport? Could that show of NFL unity have helped to block growing concerns that, amid a blizzard of negative news and views, pro football was beginning to fade as America’s most popular spectator sport?
In other words, could Donald Trump have saved professional football? Give him credit for this: He certainly spun a mild demonstration against racism into a flagrant case of disrespect for the flag, the military, our wars, patriotism, the nation, and above all else, of course, Donald J. Trump. With his usual skill, he then reshaped that sizzling package into yet another set of presidential pep rallies for his own fans, that much-invoked “base.” In the process, he also helped highlight the Jock Spring that had stirred last year when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem. Though it seemed to fade after the initial blast of publicity, it was revitalized last month when the president labeled any football player who knelt or sat or stayed in the locker room during the playing of the pre-game anthem a “son of a bitch,” the same term he used last year to describe the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Trump’s slur clearly resonated with the resentment many everyday white male sports fans often seem to have when it comes to bigger, younger, better-paid African-Americans who don’t appear grateful enough for the chance to live out their daydreams. Keep in mind that the NFL, like the National Basketball Association, is a predominately black league. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has a relatively small percentage of African-American players, although many Hispanics and Asians. (Only one active baseball player, Oakland’s Bruce Maxwell, an African American, has taken a knee.)