It started with a kneel.
During the San Francisco 49ers final preseason game of 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick ‘took a knee’ during the playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick explained his kneeling was a form of protest against the discrimination and oppression of people of color in the United States. Kaepernick’s actions were polarizing to say the least; many fans and NFL executives maligned Kaepernick as a “traitor, while scores of other players defended Kaepernick, with some also opting to kneel during the anthem. Many veterans defended Kaepernick as well, noting that it was their duty to defend the rights of private citizens, such as Kaepernick, to protest peacefully.
More than a year later, the debate rages on as to whether Kaepernick’s stand (or lack thereof) is disrespectful or patriotic. Adding fuel to the flames is the fact that Kaepernick, an undeniably talented player, does not currently have a job in a league in perpetual shortage of competent quarterbacks. But perhaps the most intriguing new element of the Kaepernick debate comes from a source not from the realm of sports but from the nation’s highest office.
President Trump certainly hasn’t made restraint of words a tenant of his presidency, and the debate regarding national anthem protests have been no exception. Trump first entered the conversation in September, when at a rally he implored NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch off field” in reference to players such as a Kaepernick who opted to protest the national anthem by kneeling. And despite the seemingly obvious conclusion that the man charged with defending the constitution of these United States should embrace free speech and the right to peaceful protest, Trump has instead doubled down on his position, taking to twitter in recent weeks to criticize kneeling players as well as the league itself.
But is Trump’s apparent obsession with protest in the NFL just a facet of the hyper-nationalism that has defined his rhetoric, or is it something much pettier? After all, it’s tough to accept that a man who just recently was filmed talking and sitting during the lowering of the flag for a military ceremony (decorum for that particular ceremony is that civilians stand with hand over heart) feels so passionately about respecting the anthem that he has taken up metaphorical arms against all who ‘disrespect’ it. Instead, Trump’s personal past suggests that this latest episode of hypocrisy is merely a result of a personal vendetta against the NFL.
Rewind to 1982, when the President was a different kind of showman and Donald Trump was ‘just’ a New York real estate mogul. The United States Football League, or USFL for short, had its inaugural season in the spring. Initially designed as the springtime complement to the larger NFL, the USFL enjoyed relatively strong ratings at first. That is, until owner of the USFL New Jersey Generals Donald Trump, pushed the league to play in the fall and directly challenge the NFL. The decision was disastrous, and the USFL folded soon thereafter. According to USFL chronicler Jeff Pearlman, Trump’s motivation towards challenging the NFL wasn’t to beat them but rather to join them, either by merging the two leagues or by another method. In fact, Trump’s desire to own an NFL team drove him to (unsuccessfully) bid on the Baltimore Colts in 1981, toy around with buying the New England Patriots in 1988, and bid (again unsuccessfully) on the Buffalo Bills in 2014. Trump was so infuriated by that final attempt that he took to twitter to lambast the organization, stating “Even though I refused to pay a ridiculous price for the Buffalo Bills, I would have produced a winner. Now that won’t happen.”
To Trump, joining the club of NFL owners would have been the ultimate example of his prestige and wealth. But as a result of his own inadequacy and poor decision making, Trump’s efforts to be a part of the NFL all resulted in failure. Now, in the name of some dystopian notion of patriotism, Trump has embroiled himself in yet another war of words, this time with the very league that wouldn’t let him join their most exclusive ranks. And try as he may to pass off his battle as a moral one (which even if it were the case would be fundamentally misguided), Trump can’t escape his own past, and the conclusions that can be drawn from them.
Regardless of motivation, Trump’s campaign against player protest has been an undeniable disaster, as scores more players across multiple sports have resisted his efforts to curb kneeling or other forms of peaceful resistance, with many of them protesting Trump’s rhetoric in addition to the original issue of race relations. Just like his efforts to join the NFL, Trump’s efforts to shape it have gone unfulfilled.
And honestly, doesn’t he have more important shit to worry about?