On Sept. 22, Donald Trump made a political statement about the NFL at a rally in Alabama. “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!’ ” Trump told the cheering crowd. The president then suggested that his supporters boycott NFL games if players continued to protest police brutality and systemic racism by kneeling during the national anthem.
The NFL’s initial reaction was to stand by those players, even as Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who’d instigated the protest movement, was effectively being blacklisted by the league. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all our players,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
It took Goodell less than a month to change his tune and offer President Trump everything he’d asked for. On Oct. 10, the commissioner issued a memo suggesting the protesters were sowing division. “The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country,” Goodell said. “We believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem.”
That plan has now come to fruition. On Wednesday, the league’s owners reportedly unanimously approved a new policy that will make protesting the anthem a violation of league rules and will impose fines on any team “if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” Players or personnel who don’t want to take part in this compelled patriotism must stay off the field until the anthem has been performed. And if they don’t abide by the policy? “The Commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” the announcement said.
With this announcement, the NFL has made it clear that it stands with Trump and against the predominantly black contingent of protesting players. Wednesday’s statement about failing to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem” might as well have been written by the president himself. Consider the tweets Trump wrote immediately after being criticized for his “son of a bitch” remarks:
And in October, he tweeted language that almost exactly parallels the league’s new dictum.
As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has noted, Trump has stripped black players of their agency to define the purpose of their own protests, tweeting that they had “nothing to do with race.”
When Kaepernick first began his protest, he said it had everything to do with race, explaining, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Eric Reid, the former San Francisco 49ers safety who was the first to kneel alongside Kaepernick, has been equally clear about why he has protested, saying that he was motivated by reading “reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police.”
With the NFL’s explicit backing, Trump has succeeded in changing the subject. The social justice movement Kaepernick started is no longer about systemic racism. It’s about whether the players themselves are sufficiently respectful.
If Trump’s pressure campaign was motivated by politics, so was the NFL’s decision to give him exactly what he wants. As Josh Levin has noted in Slate, NFL owners contribute to Republicans at 42 times the rate that they do Democrats and a small klatch of league owners combined to contribute 7 percent of Trump’s inaugural fund. In the months leading up to the decision, two of the league’s most influential owners—Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft—spoke personally with the president. Kraft met Trump on Air Force One a few days before the president boasted of his influence over league officials. As I wrote in October, Jones said after his conversations with the president that “Trump had reminded him about an NFL policy that encouraged players to stand during the anthem.” Trump, for his part, tweeted this:
While Goodell has been more cautious than Trump in his public statements, he’s been just as motivated to get the players to stand up. Shortly after he declared in October that the protests were “threatening to erode the unifying power of our game,” the league began negotiating with a small group of the protesters. Ultimately, the Players Coalition, a group led by Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, agreed to a near–$100 million deal with the league to support player causes. Kaepernick was frozen out of those discussions, and Reid told me at the time that the league tried to buy him off, explaining that he was asked if he would end his protests in exchange for the money. He refused to commit to that, and this offseason he’s been unable to get a job despite being one of the top free agents in the NFL, according to the league’s own official website.
The Players Coalition is not a part of the NFL Players Association, which didn’t have a seat at the table during the negotiations between the league and the Jenkins-led group. The NFLPA has also been iced out of conversations about the league’s new anthem policy, which owners have now imposed unilaterally. ESPN reported on Wednesday that each of the league’s “32 owners approved the policy, which will be part of the NFL’s game operations manual and thus not subject to collective bargaining.” (Confusingly, ESPN also noted that San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York abstained from the vote.) In a statement, the NFLPA pushed back on the claim that this is now a settled issue:
The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League.
Our union will review the new “policy” and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.
Goodell and the owners have sided with the president. The NFLPA looks powerless to do anything about it. At this point, it’s unclear who, if anyone, in the NFL will speak for Kaepernick and Reid. If their fellow players stand down, then Trump will have achieved one of the most comprehensive victories of his presidency.