Andrew Malcolm

Why did Trump tackle the NFL?

President Donald Trump triggered a firestorm this weekend with his tweets about the National Football League. Photo is a scene from Sunday night’s Washington Redskins-Oakland Raiders game.
President Donald Trump triggered a firestorm this weekend with his tweets about the National Football League. Photo is a scene from Sunday night’s Washington Redskins-Oakland Raiders game. AP

A new media poll last weekend found two out of three Americans believe President Donald Trump has done more to divide the country than unite it. That’s a majority of men, whites, suburbanites, seniors and four in 10 conservatives.

Here’s how Trump does that in a twin tweet:

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect...our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

With new, more disciplined chief of staff John Kelly these Trump bursts into culture wars are increasingly rare. But as Trump well knew on a quiet Saturday morning, such gratuitous shouts ignited a firestorm of controversy eagerly fueled and repeated all weekend by media starving for story fodder with no hurricane to hype.

Additional pro athletes stepped into the fray. The NFL commissioner, whose chief PR guy once flacked for Bill Clinton, tweeted disagreement.

On Sunday, some teams hid in locker rooms until after the anthem. Some players still knelt. Others stood on the sidelines arm-in-arm pretending to be civil rights marchers.

Trump poured on fuel by adding: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S….If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

Trump has made the protests about Trump. But we now know that the president reads tweets as well as writes them.

In recent weeks the Twitterverse has been aflame with indignation and outrage over first a few and then more NFL players sitting or kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner that began as a simple poem about a battle with Britain 203 years ago this month. It wasn’t the National Anthem until 1931.

With hashtags aggregating subject tweets like #NFLProtest, #TakeaKnee and #BoycotttheNFL, Twitter anger was palpable at a wealthy athletic establishment and its pampered workers that jack prices way beyond reach of an average worker and clutter games with mind-numbing, repetitive commercial timeouts. Now, many felt they broke their entertainment contract by inserting political issues.

A number of factors from rule changes to a bevy of less-experienced quarterbacks have combined to dull down the game this year. Three days a week now players and their league produce an entertainment product sagging in recent value and in ratings.

If you can afford the nonstop instant highlights and articulate commentary of Andrew Siciliano, football can be a beautiful thing to watch—the impossible catches, beautifully leveraged blocks, quarterback eye feints, running back cuts. Blessedly free of showboating players and tedious timeouts. Because, honestly, a 6-3 halftime score isn’t worth that many Cialis bathtub ads.

How better for a showman to draw attention on his favorite forum than by jumping on the bandwagon to share a few unsolicited comments with his 39.3 million followers, including hundreds of reporters? Especially if those provocations appear to place a low-rated president on the side of flag and patriotism that his base holds dear.

Now, every American enjoys free speech, even overpaid athletes, self-important Hollywood celebs and a president who once owned his own pro football team. Never mind good taste, anyone can spout off about anything almost anywhere.

The issue for many Americans is not the right of these walking tattoo pillars to express themselves. Social injustice, world hunger and these days a brash Trump are legitimate causes, if you need a cause to sit down.

It’s the timing and placement of these protests. And the rude insertion of political statements into what the league designed as escapist entertainment and games that, in a quiet, affirming way have been a positive celebration of shared American values.

Watch out! Now, the market is responding. NFL ratings are down as many escape the escapist entertainment. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is off 7 percent this year, ESPN’s Monday night down 5 percent, Fox down 11 percent, CBS 19 percent.

That’s a powerful protest against protests because those TV networks have contracted to pay the league about $40 billion between 2014 and 2022, more than $5 billion this year alone. They count on growing audiences.

Earlier this month late-night host Stephen Colbert emceed the annual Emmy Awards. To the delight of his L.A. audience, the show to celebrate TV entertainment turned into a long Trump-bashing fest.

We now know the invisible TV audience exercised its own right of free speech, clicking remotes away from the political protests. The program tied for lowest ratings in its history. That’s probably just coincidence, don’t you think?

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm