U.S. President Donald Trump ignited a firestorm when he told a Huntsville, Ala., rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!’”
For someone who “wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL” before criticizing players for taking a knee during the national anthem, he’s certainly occupied with it now.
Trump’s critics believe he’s made a mockery of First Amendment rights and launched another controversial episode of racial prejudice.
They couldn’t be more wrong: Trump will win this battle in five easy ways:
This isn’t solely about free speech. If it was, right-leaning individuals like me who oppose the decision to take a knee would be siding with National Football League players. They have the freedom to do this, be it an issue of police brutality, race relations or intense dislike of Trump. Rather, the mistake they’re making is this is a multi-faceted issue that goes beyond the parameters of promoting free expression. As odd as this may sound, the protection of speech is the least important component of this dispute.
Trump has manoeuvred this battle effectively. Twitter is often the president’s worst enemy. Yet in a Sept. 25 tweet at 6:39 a.m., he wrote, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” Trump framed it properly: this isn’t about him or the players, it’s about flag and country. If he continually sticks to this strategy, his opponents won’t be able to properly combat it.
Many Americans have long believed professional athletes are whiny and overpaid. The public’s love-hate relationship with today’s sports stars – which is very different from the early days of hero worship in baseball and football – works heavily against them. Players’ passion for the game is often in dispute and their reputations off the field are fairly sullied. While it’s obviously unfair to paint all players with the same brush, this negative image is firmly entrenched in fans’ minds. It’s one of Trump’s biggest assets in this debate and he’s used it to his full advantage.
The NFL is a business first and social justice organization last. Several high-profile Trump supporters have backed their teams in taking a knee, including Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan (a major contributor to Trump’s inaugural committee), Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (who calls himself a friend) and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (a Republican and friend). But it’s not going to last. Fans have expressed their disappointment in players taking a knee and won’t be pleased to see it happen week after week. It will lead to reduced ticket and merchandise sales, and diminished annual profits for teams. The NFL will, therefore, quickly enforce the rule that players must stand during the national anthem, bringing the issue to a conclusion to protect their business interests.
The personal isn’t always political. We can debate Trump’s motives in battling the NFL and whether this discussion really has racial overtones. Yet the issue has bothered Americans from all walks of life since Colin Kaepernick, the now-unemployed quarterback, triggered this controversy last season. Trump is interested in football (he’s a former owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals and previously expressed a desire to own an NFL franchise). So why wouldn’t he want to enter the fray in much the same way his predecessor, Barack Obama, joined the debate about the Washington Redskins’ nickname? Not everything is about politics, folks.
Yes, Trump didn’t need to light the spark that led to this controversy. There are more pressing matters to deal with, including North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Nevertheless, the president is going to win this debate if he stays focused on the need for national pride and respect for the American flag. That’s a political touchdown.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.