President Donald Trump is on the record saying anything that keeps the subject of black athletes protesting police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem is good for him politically.
That calculus has set him up to play an inside-out game with the NFL in particular for more than two years, at once revving up rally crowds with a demand that players who kneel be fired and more privately acknowledging to team owners they “can’t win this one.” But on Tuesday, Trump traded that brazen public-private disconnect in his stated desires for free speech policies in pro sports for an even more convoluted semi-embrace of quarterback and protest movement lightning rod Colin Kaepernick’s right to speak.
“Nike is a tenant of mine. They pay a lot of rent,” the president told The Daily Caller in an Oval Office sit-down. “As much as I disagree with the Colin Kaepernick endorsement, in another way… it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do, but I personally am on a different side of it.” Trump has previously called Kaepernick a “sonofabitch” for his kneeling.
Over the holiday weekend, sports reporters revealed that Nike has been paying Kaepernick throughout the two years he’s been blackballed from the league for his protests, all without using him for public endorsements. The news teased Nike’s new campaign featuring Kaepernick, timed to land in the league’s opening week of competitive play.
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” the ad says. The ad prompted some own-the-libs types in right-wing internet circles to tweet pictures of themselves cutting the Nike logo off of clothing they had already purchased from the multi-billion-dollar apparel behemoth. Savvy market analysts eagerly chirped up with market research indicating the company’s play was paying off because it generated “$43 million in buzz for Nike so far.”
Anyone still expecting an iota of intellectual consistency from Trump would have been bracing for the president’s response to the new campaign all day. Nike has been a major tenant of Trump’s Manhattan tower for years. The man who instructed NFL owners to fire players who protested during the anthem regardless of their talent might fairly be expected to blast the people who pay him oodles of money for a storefront in light of their (carefully calculated) re-deployment of Kaepernick as a sales fulcrum.
Perhaps the massive Nike retail complex that earns Trump money seems to have changed his tonal calculus in ways the NFL’s weirdest, dumbest workplace-regulation yoga bends could not. Now that the people he’d antagonize through criticism are paying clients, suddenly Kaepernick’s just another American with the right to be wrong instead of an enemy of rightness. But the company’s already made a showy announcement it’s leaving and begun furnishing its new digs a few blocks away, making it unlikely that Trump thinks he can somehow woo them back.
If your reading of Tuesday’s commentary on the Kaepernick ad hinges on treating it as a change of position, you’re still doing the Trump era wrong. The president’s only true position on the question of black athletes protesting injustice is that he profits politically every time the subject is in the news. If the NFL could have somehow actually eradicated such quiet demands for change from its national TV showcases, Trump wouldn’t have been happy. One of his favorite culture-war cudgels would have lost some of its zing. Nike’s revived partnership with Kaepernick is good for him.