What Trump gains by attacking the NFL

Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, take a knee prior to the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, take a knee prior to the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals. AP

A poll released over the weekend found two out of three Americans believe President Donald Trump has done more to divide the country than unite it. A majority of men, whites, suburbanites, seniors and four in 10 conservatives all held the view.

And as if on cue, Trump demonstrated the trait in a series of tweets:

“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 … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Since Chief of Staff John Kelly assumed his post, these Trump bursts into culture wars have been less frequent. But this weekend, they ignited a firestorm eagerly fueled by media starving for story fodder with no hurricane to hype.

Athletes stepped into the fray. The NFL commissioner tweeted disagreement. Some players still knelt. Others stood arm-in-arm pretending to be civil rights marchers. Trump poured on fuel, “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country.”

In doing so, Trump has made the protests about Trump. Since the controversy began last year and this season’s NFL games began, the Twitterverse has been aflame with indignation over NFL players sitting or kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

With tweet-aggregating hashtags like #TakeaKnee and #BoycotttheNFL, Twitter anger has been palpable, casting a pall over a wealthy athletic establishment that jacks up prices way beyond the reach of average workers and clutters games with mind-numbing, commercial timeouts. Many feel that, with political issues inserted into the games, a type of entertainment contract has been broken.

On top of that, rule changes and less-experienced quarterbacks have combined to dull down the game. Three days a week, players and their league produce an entertainment product sagging in value and ratings.

Football can be a beautiful thing to watch – the impossible catches, beautifully leveraged blocks, quarterback eye feints, running back cuts. Blessedly free of showboating players and tedious timeouts. Because, honestly, a 6-3 halftime score isn’t worth that many Cialis bathtub ads.

So how better for a showman to draw attention to himself than by jumping on the controversy bandwagon and sharing a few unsolicited comments with his 39.3 million followers, including reporters? Especially if those provocations place a low-rated president on the side of the flag and patriotism his base hold dear.

Every American enjoys free speech, even overpaid athletes and a president who once owned his own pro football team. The issue for many Americans is not the right of these walking tattoo pillars to express themselves. Social injustice, world hunger and these days a brash Trump are legitimate causes, if you need a cause to sit down.

It’s the timing and placement of these protests. And the rude insertion of political statements into what the league designed as escapist entertainment and games that have been a positive celebration of shared American values.

The market is responding. NFL ratings are down as many escape the escapist entertainment. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is down 7 percent this year, Fox down 11 percent, CBS 19 percent. That’s a powerful protest against protests because TV networks contract to pay the league about $40 billion between 2014 and 2022. They count on growing audiences.

Earlier this month, late-night host Stephen Colbert emceed the Emmy Awards. To the delight of his Los Angeles audience, the show turned into a long Trump-bashing fest. But the TV audience exercised its right of free speech, clicking away from the protests. The program tied for lowest ratings in its history. That’s probably just coincidence, don’t you think?

Andrew Malcolm’s Twitter handle: @AHMalcolm.