Trump taunts kneeling players after NFL cracks down on protests: "You shouldn't be in the country"

The president and vice president take a political victory lap over the latest battle in the culture wars

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 24, 2018 10:37AM (EDT)

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Thearon W. Henderson)
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Thearon W. Henderson)

While President Donald Trump has struggled to succeed in dealing with North Korea and China, getting Mexico to build his border wall, repealing Obamacare or achieving much else besides corporate tax cuts, he can now tick off one symbolic victory — intimidating the NFL into politically silencing its own players.

After a nearly two-year-long public debate, the NFL announced on Wednesday that "a club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem." Although the league will allow players who wish to protest racial injustice to do so by staying in their locker room rather than go onto the field during the national anthem, those on the field will be required to refrain from protest during the national anthem.

This decision, which was agreed to by all of the club owners (except for the owner of the San Francisco 49ers, who abstained from voting), seems to be consistent with what Trump said he wanted back in September — namely, for club owners to respond to protesting players by saying, "Get that son of a bitch off the field!"

One of the main motivations for NFL teams implementing these policies appears to be fear of Trump and backlash from his supporters. "Our league is f--king terrified of Trump. We're scared of him," one team official reportedly told Mike Freeman of The Bleacher Report.

The New York Times reported in April about a meeting between NFL team owners and a number of players in October over the issue of NFL player protests, Trump's criticism of those players and the future of the quarterback who started it all, former San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick.

“Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,” the Times quoted Trump saying of Kaepernick.

In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Trump repeated the suggestion that protesting players be deported, as he gloated about the NFL's decision:

Well I think that's good. I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it's good. You have to stand — proudly — for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country.

The president added:

You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. And the NFL owners did the right thing, if that's what they've done. I think the people pushed it forward; this was not me. I brought it out. I think the people pushed it forward. This country's very smart. We have very smart people. And, you know, that's something ideally could have been taken care of when it first started, would have been a lot easier. But if they did that, they're doing the right thing.

Vice President Mike Pence, who spent over $200,000 in taxpayer money on transportation alone to publicly walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game during the player protests, also took to Twitter to gloat about this culture war triumph:

Trump has successfully whipped up the sport's conservative fans into a frenzy over the protests, pitting black athletes against white consumers. Trump ginned up NFL owners' fear that upset fans and sponsors were not only going to threaten boycotts but cause lasting harm to their financial bottom line — a worry that seemed to be reinforced by a decline in their TV ratings. On Wednesday, The New York Times' Editorial Board published an editorial that condemned the NFL team owners for ultimately capitulating to Trump with their new policy:

The owners of the National Football League have concluded, with President Trump, that true patriotism is not about bravely standing up for democratic principle but about standing up, period.

Rather than show a little backbone themselves and support the right of athletes to protest peacefully, the league capitulated to a president who relishes demonizing black athletes.

Ironically enough, the NFL has long had a reputation as a more politically conservative sport. President Richard Nixon famously offered unsolicited advice to a head coach before a Super Bowl, and his successor, President Gerald Ford, had been a college football star at the University of Michigan and turned down offers to play for the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. Less than a decade later, President Ronald Reagan would delay his public inauguration by one day so that it wouldn't conflict with Super Bowl XIX, which was being broadcast on the day his second term officially began.

Beyond these public metrics, football has generally been associated with the more conservative strains in American culture. As professor and sports writer Andrew McGregor wrote for The Washington Post in September:

Since the 1950s, football has transformed from a national pastime to a political tool. The college gridiron has helped turn states red not simply by amusing the Silent Majority on game days, but by promoting economic growth and spreading the values of hierarchy, order and masculinity that have been central to the right’s political ascendancy. Over the past half-century, football has preserved these principles, which conservatives view as under siege by the left. The game and its pageantry, steeped in tradition, have hammered home the tie between the culture of the past and American greatness, and have imbued men with the perceived competitiveness and toughness required to thrive in an unforgiving free-market economy.

In short, for the right, college football is a safe space of their own.

 If nothing else, the NFL's desire to support a conservative politician and its conservative fan base in response to the NFL player protests makes sense in light of this history. At the same time, it is hard to see if the NFL can ever go back to being viewed as a solidly conservative sport in the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick and the player protests. They may have silenced some protesters now — assuming the players don't choose to become outright defiant or find creative ways of circumventing the new rules — but it's hard to imagine how this bell can ever be truly unrung.

Kneeling can be patriotic

Dan Rather describes why he views the NFL player protesters as patriotic.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Nfl Nfl Player Protests Robert Kraft