LET’S start with context. Last year Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, sat and kneeled rather stood during the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he said. As the season progressed other players—all of them black, like most of the National Football League (NFL)—also began to “take a knee” during the anthem. Mr Kaepernick left the 49ers at the end of last season. No other team has signed him, despite his strong record; many suspect he has been blackballed. But the protests have continued.
On the evening of September 22nd, Donald Trump came to Huntsville, Alabama to stump for Luther Strange, who is running for Senate in the Republican primary runoff against Roy Moore. He spoke before a crowd of around 10,000 people at a sports arena, and they were there to see the president, not Mr Strange: in the crowd your blogger saw hundreds of Trump shirts, hats and homemade signs, and not a single piece of Strange swag.
Around 40 minutes his meandering, undisciplined speech, Mr Trump said, “Luther and I and everyone in this arena tonight are motivated by the same great American values. We’re proud of our country. We respect our flag.” The crowd roared, and sensing the opportunity for more applause, he pivoted: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” There were immense cheers, followed by a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” He continued: “What’s hurting the game…is when people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee, when they’re playing our great national anthem.”
The speech’s racial undertones were impossible to miss. No president, to your blogger’s knowledge, has ever used such language during a political rally. Mr Trump used it to describe black men (“those people”) peacefully protesting, while encouraging the overwhelmingly white, conservative audience (“people like yourselves”) to “leave the stadium” if they see “just one” of them take a knee. In Mr Trump’s world, white nationalists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia while waving Nazi and Confederate flags while raving about “blood and soil” and debating whether to burn down a synagogue with people inside it are “very fine people” expressing legitimate concerns about the erasure of their history, while black athletes protesting silently are “sons of bitches” who should lose their jobs.
Many wondered how the NFL would respond. While most players are black, most fans and all but one owner are white. That distinguishes it from professional basketball, which also has mostly black players, but also appears to have a majority-minority fan base. The NBA (National Basketball Association) has long taken progressive political positions, or at least supported its players and coaches doing so. The NFL has been more cautious: as Mr Trump noted, many of the owners are his friends (or at least donors).
Shortly after Mr Trump’s speech, Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner—and a paragon of wind-testing establishment caution—knocked the president’s “divisive comments.” Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots and has long supported Mr Trump, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Mr Trump’s comments. On Sunday, when most NFL games are played, the players responded. Some teams took knees together. Some stayed in the locker room for the anthem. Some owners and coaches joined the protests. Players who felt compelled to stand for the anthem locked arms with kneeling teammates in a show of support.
Football players are not the only prominent black sports figures with whom Mr Trump has tussled. His spokeswoman urged ESPN, a sports television network, to fire Jemele Hill, a black host, for comments criticising the president (they have not, though they did publicly rebuke her). When Steph Curry, a point guard for the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors, said he did not want to visit the White House (a tradition for teams that win championships), Mr Trump publicly disinvited him. By contrast, earlier this year Ted Nugent—a musician who told Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and called for Hillary Clinton to be hanged for treason—got a private White House dinner with Mr Trump, along with Sarah Palin and Kid Rock.
Mr Trump continues to grumble about the NFL on Twitter, but he lost this fight: not only players, but Republican team owners came out against him. Meanwhile, North Korea ponders an above-ground nuclear test, the Affordable Care Act repeal hangs on a knife’s edge and Puerto Rico is bracing for six months without electricity.