Is there more to Donald Trump's antipathy to the NFL than meets the eye?
Each year it is tradition for the winners of the Super Bowl to visit the White House to celebrate the victory with the president. This time around however, partly down to a series of high-profile protests by players involving the national anthem and a perceived lack of respect towards it, several members of the victorious Philadelphia Eagles team are openly touting that they may decline the invitation.
Critics of the protests, which mostly involve players either kneeling or raising a fist during the rendition of the anthem, say that the players are disrespecting the very concept of the United States, and the armed forces and police officers who defend it.
If you ask supporters of the protests, they will tell you a very different story. Colin Kaepernick, who was the first to mark this type of protest in August 2016, originally sat during the anthem to highlight perceived inequalities being inflicted upon minorities in the United States, as well as police brutality.
Kaepernick modified his protest after a discussion with former US Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer, who advised him that kneeling instead of sitting would indicate respect towards the military while also continuing his demonstration. But as time went on, the voices arguing against this protest took on a different tone – chief of which came from the president himself.
The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Donald Trump was an outspoken critic of the protests, calling for the players who participated in them to be fired in a move which, at the very least, blurs the players' first amendment rights.
In late September of last year, Trump issued his sternest criticism of the protests yet. A day after telling a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should terminate the contracts of players who protest perceived inequality, he took to Twitter with his trademark catchphrase from his reality television series 'The Apprentice'.
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....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
...our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
The following week saw the largest mass protest from players yet. Several players, including then Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman, issued retorts on social media.
The behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) September 23, 2017
In October, in what many people perceived to be a PR stunt, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game against the San Francisco 49ers when many of the players continued their protest.
Following the game, Pence issued his own statement on social media.
What has been the impact of the war of words between the office of the president and the National Football League? NFL ratings are understood to have decreased, with some fans certainly citing the anthem protest as their primary reason for switching off the television. Numerous other factors come into it, however.
Many fans are opting to 'cut the cord' and watch illegal streams instead of paying for cable, others are turned off by the off the field behavior of some of the players, and some others are just plain and simply losing interest in football.
Another angle to this debate is that Trump's antipathy towards the NFL dates back to before the anthem protests even began. In the mid-80s Trump, who was an owner of a team in the upstart (and now defunct) United States Football League, was understood to have long desired to be the owner of an NFL franchise.
In a meeting with Pete Rozelle, the veteran commissioner of the league, Trump was told that he will never be a franchise owner so long as he or any of his heirs are alive.
It seems highly unlikely that Trump will ever own an NFL franchise now, but, as ever, he has inserted himself into the football narrative. And whether or not the anthem protests dwindle next season, you can be sure that Trump will have his impact imprinted on the National Football League one way or another.