In the culture war between the NFL and President Trump, both sides appear to be winning select battles.
But they also are enduring some losses.
The president began Wednesday tweeting that players’ kneeling to protest racial injustice and police violence during the national anthem is disrespectful to the United States.
“The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017”
More than half of Americans — 52 percent — disapprove of NFL players taking a knee during the anthem, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. The disapproval is even higher among white Americans and Republicans — groups that are overwhelmingly pro-Trump and overlap considerably since 8 in 10 Republicans are white.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agrees with those who feel that all players should stand.
“We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem,” he told reporters Wednesday. “That’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. It’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that.”
He indicated that the league’s ultimate goal is for protests to end. “We hope and are going to try to get that to zero,” Goodell said.
But that’s where the unity between the two sides appears to end. The NFL stopped short of meeting Trump’s desire that players be forced to stop protesting.
“I think most of us believe that attempting to force the players to do something that they don’t want to do is not going to be effective in the long run,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara told the Washington Post. “I think the better policy going forward is to try to have dialogue with them and try to show them that we’re willing to work with them on some of these issues that all of us are concerned about. That’s been my philosophy with my team, and I think almost every other owner feels the same.”
Not only will NFL players not be prevented from protesting, but Goodell also chose not to address Trump’s desire that players be disciplined for refusing to stand for the anthem. The president originally suggested that players unwilling to stand be fired.
And perhaps more important, NFL leaders refused to let Trump hijack the narrative of the protest. Goodell — and anyone who has been paying attention since former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick started the protest in 2016 — knows why the protests are happening. And the commissioner reiterated that quite clearly Wednesday.
“They have stated to everyone publicly, they are not doing this in any way to be disrespectful to the flag,” Goodell said, acknowledging that athletes are trying to use their platform to bring attention to “national issues” such as criminal-justice reform.
“They’re talking about equality issues, making sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to give people an opportunity, whether it’s education or economic,” he added.
Trump may be winning this issue with his base — which despite getting behind the winning candidate in 2016 is not the majority of Americans. But he is not winning the NFL or people from the groups most personally affected by the protests.
Millennials and black Americans — groups Trump lost in 2016 — approve of the protests and believe that having the freedom to speak out against racism isn’t disrespectful to the United States but is at the core of what this country represents.
Trump has the option of continuing his fight, which he claims is in defense of the military, or he can pivot his attention from football to more notable concerns of those serving — getting to the bottom of why four soldiers were gunned down at the border of Niger and Mali in the deadliest combat incident since he took office.
Regardless of how Trump handles this, there is one battle that Goodell is definitely losing — and that’s the fight for neutrality.
“What we’re trying to do is stay out of politics,” Goodell said. “What we’re trying to do is keep people focused on football.”
In these times, like it or not, to be focused on football means to keep your eyes on Washington.
Eugene Scott writes about identity politics for the Washington Post’s The Fix. @Eugene_Scott