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Trump claims in Super Bowl interview that football is popular again because he ended player protests

The president also resurrects a false assertion that players who kneel during the national anthem are disrespecting the flag

In this file photo taken on February 1, 2019 US President Donald Trump and son Barron Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Palm Beach, Florida. (Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
In this file photo taken on February 1, 2019 US President Donald Trump and son Barron Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Palm Beach, Florida. (Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Hours before the NFL kicked off Super Bowl LIII, President Donald Trump in an interview broadcast Sunday took credit for what he said was an increase in popularity in professional football.

Americans are watching football again, the president claimed, because players are no longer kneeling for the national anthem, and because criminal justice legislation he signed has allowed players to feel it is less imperative to protest.

“They haven’t been kneeling and they have been respecting the flag and their ratings have been terrific ever since,” Trump said, in a pre-recorded interview for  CBS’ Face the Nation  that aired Sunday morning. “And a lot of good things happened.”

Wrong, and wrong.

As USA Today found in an analysis of football viewership, the president’s tirades don’t have much of an impact on ratings in either direction. America’s Game is doing just fine.

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Trump seized upon former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in several 2016 preseason and regular season games to protest police shootings of unarmed black Americans.

Kaepernick’s protest triggered similar demonstrations by other players and provoked Trump to denounce the NFL for allowing players to do so. 

The team owners voted to imposed a policy requiring all players to stand during the national anthem or to remain in the locker room during the pregame activities. When players objected, the owners backed down, issuing a statement that said “no rules relating to the anthem will be issued for the next several weeks.”

In a tweet following the NFL’s retreat, Trump tweeted that players should be suspended for one game the first time kneeling, and for the entire season without pay after a second offense.

In his Face the Nation interview, Trump repeated his false argument that football players who kneel during the national anthem are disrespecting the flag.

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“I think that when you want to protest I think that’s great,” he told show host Margaret Brennan. “But I don’t think you do it at the sake of our flag, at the sake of our national anthem. Absolutely.

“I think that people have to, at all times, respect our flag and at all times respect our national anthem and our country,” he said. “And I think there are plenty of places and times you can protest and you can do a lot. But you can’t do that. That’s my opinion.”

Brennan asked Trump if he understood what the kneeling players were saying about police brutality, the president shifted the topic to his signing legislation for criminal reform and argued that “a lot of people in the NFL have been calling and thanking me for it.”

In a following segment on the show, CBS sports reporter James Brown said the NFL hadn’t put the kneeling controversy behind it “because it’s not an issue that can be moved past.”

Brown said the idea of players disrespecting the country is untrue.

“The narrative has been that the players would be anti-patriotic, anti-flag, anti-police, anti-military,” he said, adding that many of the protesting players have family in the military and law enforcement.

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“But if the narrative has been hijacked to say that it is no matter what — it’s a nonstarter, you’re not hearing. The two sides ought to hear each other to make progress.”

Similarly, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said over the weekend that he supports athletes who want to peacefully demonstrate against police brutality and social injustice. “There’s nothing wrong with kneeling,” Lewis said Friday during a visit to his congressional district, which is hosting Super Bowl LIII.

“Before we marched from Selma to Montgomery, on March 7, 1965, we knelt,” he added. “We prayed. Andy Young was the only person standing out of the 600 of us. We knelt, and when we said, ‘Amen,’ we stood and we started walking. Sometimes you have to use the most simple means of engaging in peaceful, nonviolent protest.”

In another football-related matter, Trump said during his CBS interview that he didn’t favor his son, Barron, playing football.

“I just don’t like the reports that I see coming out having to do with football — I mean, it’s a dangerous sport and I think it’s — really tough,” Trump said, adding that he preferred his son play soccer. “I thought the equipment would get better, and it has. The helmets have gotten far better but it hasn’t solved the problem.”

Trump, who briefly owned a professional football team in the defunct World Football League and has sought ownership in an NFL franchise, said he loved to watch football, but “I really think that as far as my son — well I’ve heard NFL players saying they wouldn’t let their sons play football. So. It’s not totally unique, but I would have a hard time with it.”