Politics & Policy

How the NFL Lost to Trump

Players battle for a fumble during a Houston Texans-New England Patriots game, September 24, 2017. (Photo: Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
It was, in part, a classic bubble phenomenon.

Donald Trump isn’t exactly on a winning streak, but he is beating the NFL in a rout.

The league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, signaled the beginning of a messy, divisive retreat with a memo stating, “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem.” Now he tells us.

The climbdown comes only weeks after a clueless bout of self-congratulation by the NFL and the media over widespread anthem protests. Donald Trump doesn’t play three-dimensional chess, as his supporters insist. But he does have an instinctive cunning and a grasp of a nationalistic cultural politics that shouldn’t be underestimated by his opponents, even though it almost always is.

It’d obviously be better if a president of the United States weren’t waging war on a major sports league. Trump’s intervention has been inflammatory from the beginning. He shouldn’t have called protesting players “sons of bitches” and mused about firing them like the loudest guy down at the end of the bar.

The very outrageousness of Trump’s initial riff, though, served his purposes. Trump’s lurid overstatement acted as a neon advertisement for his commonsensical underlying point, namely that players should stand during the national anthem. And it baited the NFL into fighting him on indefensible ground.

There were all sorts of unobjectionable means available for players to defy Trump, but they allowed themselves to, in effect, get double-dared into disrespecting the flag.

The perils here should have been obvious. David Frum, an incisive and unrelenting anti-Trump voice, wrote a piece for The Atlantic at the outset of the controversy, urging players not to cede the flag to Trump. They went ahead and ceded the flag to Trump. Why?

It was, in part, a classic bubble phenomenon. Sports journalists are, if anything, more left than political journalists. They were excited about being at the center of a national political debate and sticking it to Trump. Much of the media piled right behind them. On CNN and MSNBC it was rare to hear a commentator say a discouraging word about the protests, let alone warn that the NFL was stumbling into Trump’s political kill box.

It is true that, after Trump got involved, the polling on the protests showed the public more evenly divided. This doesn’t have equal significance: If you’re Donald Trump and at 40 percent or below in the polls, a 50/50 issue works for you; if you are the NFL and trying to appeal to a broad audience, a 50/50 issue is a disaster for you.

The NFL misunderstood its own nature. It’s not just that it is a game that should be a respite from political and social contention; as a quasi-national festival, it should be identified with a certain baseline of patriotism (the national anthem, the enormous American flags on the field before games, the military flyovers, etc.). Colin Kaepernick cracked this image, and Donald Trump drove a wedge through it.

It is much too early to know what the 2020 landscape will look like, but if Trump wins again, it will surely have something to do with a dynamic like the one that played out with the NFL. Trump will cause an unthinking overreaction by Democrats on a culture issue or issues, and the party will be wrong-footed by the insularity of its own political and media ecosystem.

What most repulses Democrats about Trump, his status as a nationalistic culture warrior, is what they most need to take heed of. If Hillary Clinton during the campaign had said, politely, that Colin Kaepernick should stand during the anthem, it might have been enough of a signal of old-school patriotism to working-class voters to put her over the top. Three more years of Trump will presumably make it even harder for the next Democratic nominee to tack to the center on a few cultural hot buttons.

The NFL’s agony is the Democrats’ peril.

READ MORE:

No Way to Treat Old Glory

I Understand Why They Knelt

NFL Players Are More Divisive Than Trump

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. Copyright © 2017 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More