What Trump doesn't understand about NFL player protests

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

With the start of the NFL season close at hand, and the 2018 midterm elections in less than three months, President Trump has renewed his attack on players who “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest racism.

The NFL, in part due to pressure from the president, rolled out new rules in May that sought to discourage the protests by fining teams whose players took part. The new policy would have allowed players to remain in the locker room during the anthem. Even before the preseason began, however, the league shelved its new policy, and player protests — along with Trump’s angry statements denouncing them — have resumed.

While numerous commentators see Trump’s attacks on the NFL as little more than a political calculation intended to shore up his base, polls show that the nation is divided roughly evenly on whether it is appropriate for players to express their views during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Muddying the national debate, Trump has made claims about the player protests that are simply untrue, according to Yahoo Sports columnist Jay Busbee. Yahoo News spoke with Busbee about what he sees as the president’s biggest misconceptions about the league and its players.

David Knowles: The president seems to believe that many the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem don’t really know why they’re doing it. Is that a fair characterization?

Jay Busbee: This began with Colin Kaepernick protesting social injustice, specifically police brutality against people of color. It was very specifically targeted and narrowly defined. It was in no way any kind of protest against the military or anything of that nature. And then it really took off, ironically enough, when Trump himself, back in week three of last year’s NFL season, brought up the idea that any protester should be fired. At that point, that’s when a large percentage of the players really stepped up and realized “We’re getting criticized. We’re getting called out and we have a voice here. We have the ability to start to make a positive change.” So what’s been remarkable is that this has galvanized the players, and those who have protested have spoken eloquently about why they are. Every week last year there was a player protester and we’d talk to him in the locker room and listen to him make his case about why he as a player, as a black man, as an American, would take that stand. They know what they’re doing. They know why they’re doing this. They also know, given the political climate, that they are risking their careers. They’ve seen what happened to Kaepernick. [Kaepernick left the San Francisco 49ers after the 2016 season and has not been signed by another team.] They’ve seen what happened to Eric Reid, who is a safety with San Francisco, same deal, he protests and has not been signed. Trump wants to paint this as some sort of gimmick, but these guys are risking their careers. This is no gimmick.

San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and former safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

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DK: How much has Trump himself sparked and galvanized this protest movement?

JB: He absolutely has. These are some of the most competitive Americans there are. Every point of their careers they’ve had to fight for their jobs. From kiddie football all the way through high school, college and the pros they’ve had to fight for their jobs. They’re competitive men. And so when someone calls them out, someone criticizes them, it’s not in their nature to sit back and say “Well, he’s got a few good points.” Trump knows this and knows it’s sparking a debate. What he’s done is to recast the issue rather than look at the substance of the protest. He looks at the timing of the protest. If it had happened, say, during the coin toss, he wouldn’t have anything to hang on it, but because it happens during the anthem he can go and wrap himself in the flag and claim they’re protesting America. The protests get criticized unfairly as “anthem protests.” They’re not. They’re protests during the anthem. That’s a distinction that a lot of people fail to make. Trump knows it’s a winning issue to wrap yourself in the flag.

DK: Does the bulk of NFL revenue go to the players?

JB: This is something that is factually, demonstrably untrue. NFL players receive between 47 percent and 48.5 percent of what’s called “direct revenue,” which includes all sorts of game operations, from television broadcasts. It’s a substantial chunk, but bear in mind that there’s 50-plus players on each team, divided by 32 teams. The NFL players, they’re not anywhere near as rich as their baseball and basketball counterparts. The basic fact of it is that not every player is rolling in money and enjoying a lifetime of financial security the way Trump likes to present it.

DK: A lot of fans believe that it’s in the player’s contract that he must stand for the anthem and place hand over heart. Is there any truth to that?

JB: No. The NFL has no specific language mandating that you must stand. The code of conduct says that you are “expected to stand.” It hasn’t been an issue until now. The NFL didn’t think to mandate and require it like the NBA does. It’s not a fireable offense, it’s not a finable offense. The NFL has tried to make it that this summer. Teams were facing fines if players didn’t stand for the anthem, but that change hit so much backlash that it has been tabled for the moment. Again, there is no rule saying players have to stand. It’s a loophole in the NFL regulations that the league has not yet closed.

DK: The league has also shelved the idea that players might simply stay in the locker room during the playing of the anthem. Do you think the NFL regrets getting into this fight to begin with?

JB: Where the players are standing strong, the league is cowering. The owners are terrified of Trump and his tweets, and they shouldn’t be. They should be able to stand up and say “We are the most powerful sports league in the country. We are signing record contracts. We recorded record revenue.” And they are so petrified of Trump coming at them that they are doing everything they can to try and appease him. You cannot appease the president no matter what you do. He’ll say “thanks for that,” and then he’ll take some more. And that’s what he’s doing  with the NFL. They make attempts to change rules and he says they’re not good enough and goes back to slapping them down again. For Trump, the NFL is the perfect foil because they’re a very low risk, high reward sort of target. He doesn’t have to risk any political capital. It’s red meat to throw to his base.

DK: The president has singled out declining NFL ratings, which he attributes to player protests, ignoring the fact that television ratings in the era of streaming services are declining across the board. But does he have a point?

JB: The NFL’s overall ratings in 2017 were down less than overall decline for broadcast TV as a whole.  Audiences are down for every kind of broadcast medium. It’s absurd to think that the protests during the anthem have caused this. All you need to do is look one sport over. Look at NASCAR, where everybody does stand for the anthem and there’s a pre-race prayer. Their ratings are down horrendously. There are so many reasons for the NFL’s ratings decline, but the protests during the anthem are certainly not a primary contributing factor.

DK: Do you think Trump holds a grudge against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league dating back to his purchase of the short-lived USFL team the New Jersey Generals and his own failed attempts to own a franchise?

President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 19, 2017, where the president honored the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots for their Super Bowl LI victory.. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

JB: A thousand percent. He absolutely does. He attempted in the ’80s to try to get the NFL to buy out the USFL, a rival spring football league, and was unsuccessful. He was largely responsible for the lawsuit that ended up demolishing the USFL entirely, vaporizing it. And then, more recently, he tried to buy the Buffalo Bills and was rebuffed. Trump carries these slights as motivation. He has never forgotten being spurned by the NFL on multiple occasions. So he revels in the chance to stick it to them any chance he gets.

DK: Where do think this battle between the NFL and Trump will ultimately lead?

JB: I think it’s going to keep going until one of the owners steps up and says, “Enough! This is what we’re doing. This is where we stand,” and then take the blast from Trump for a little bit longer and then he’ll go and find something else to attack. It’s also going to require the teams and the players to get closer together. That’s why the NBA can have its players stand for the anthem and not revolt. The NBA allows its players a whole lot more freedom in terms of free expression, saying what they want both on and off the court. The NFL wants its players to be automatons who just go out and play the game and have no other distractions. The NBA recognizes that these are men that have a whole lot of political interests outside of basketball. So, if the NFL can make that kind of leap in its perception and give players a little bit more respect, freedom and independence, then I think the protests themselves would go away.

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