Over the weekend, President Donald Trump took a sharp, diversionary turn away from affairs of state — you know, issues such as nuclear weapons in North Korea, a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, or whipping GOP lawmakers to repeal health care laws — to bully another group with trash talk: professional athletes.
It didn’t go well.
Whatever motivated Trump to believe he could win a war of words with NFL and NBA players was sheer folly. Sure, Trump is adept at posting insulting and inflammatory tweets in the middle of the night. And, yes, he’s found a ride-or-die core of supporters who believe and cheer him. In fact, he tends to make incendiary comments when other news portrays him in less than flattering light. Typically, the subjects of Trump’s Twitter outbursts are staffers or sycophants who have little recourse other than silent suffering.
But over the weekend, Trump focused his ire on athletes, nearly all of whom are African American, for taking a knee, raising a fist, or declining to come onto the field during the playing of the National Anthem. The players say they’re keeping alive the protest started last year by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee to draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Kaepernick isn’t participating in the protests this season because he remains unsigned to an NFL team.
But Trump is no match for professional athletes, who have fan bases and social media followers who aren’t beholden to the president. If anything, those who are cheering on the black athletes’ protests are likely to be ardent opponents of the president and his opinions on just about everything — in politics and sports.
What’s more, athletes spend countless hours honing the fine art of verbal put-downs, just as they exercise their bodies for peak performance, to gain an advantage over an opponent and to earn adoring fan support. So, as the president attacked the world of professional football, the players fought back.
They didn’t just hurl insults, however. Some brave football players ignored Trump’s threats and protested anyway. They did so because they believe strongly in speaking out about racial injustice and wanted to demonstrate their right to peacefully protest. They showed a football-watching country that trash-talking players can rally the public to cheer louder for them than for Trump.
For political reasons intended to rally his base of white nationalist supporters, Trump has misrepresented the players’ protests as disrespect for America. Before unleashing on professional athletes over social media, Trump threw the first salvo, telling a largely white audience in Alabama that NFL team owners should fire any player who protests during the playing of the pre-game National Anthem:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ And that owner… they’ll be the most popular person in this country.
In an escalation of the controversy beyond NFL players, Trump took to Twitter on Saturday morning to disinvite Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the star of the NBA championship team, from the traditional White House visit because of Curry’s outspoken opposition to the president’s policies and behavior. That drew a Twitter smackdown from the NBA’s brightest star, LeBron James, who labeled Trump “U bum.”
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
In making his trash-talking case to supporters, the president fraudulently conflated opposition to millionaire black athletes’ protest with the latent racism that lurks in arguments of anti-patriotism. Of course, Trump denies his criticisms have a racial undertone, telling reporters Sunday that he’s never mentioned race and is only concerned with patriotism. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, repeated the claim during Monday’s press briefing.
This is a trick to pit Trump’s nationalist sentiments against Constitutional freedoms and the essence of his trash-talking tweets.
White House denies that Trump's NFL comments are about race: "The president is talking about pride in our country." pic.twitter.com/LhnE6sfg4b
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) September 25, 2017
But this line of attack backfired as professional football players, coaches, and owners appeared on the sidelines of Sunday’s games together, a demonstration of support for each other and opposition to the president. As Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer noted, “the NFL players stood, knelt, raised fists, sat, abstained… whatever felt right.”
“But in this current United States climate, locking arms and showing respect to the next person — whether he is using his constitutional right to make a peaceful expression or choosing to honor the flag — is profound,” Brewer wrote. “Throughout the nation and in London [where the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars played], the league responded to President Trump’s scathing, profane and ignorant criticism by showing him two things he can neither comprehend nor inspire as a leader: empathy and unity.”
Not only have they perfected the art of trash talking, the nation’s professional athletes inspired each other and their much larger fan base to demonstrate just how much Trump is out of his league when he competes against them.
The current professional football season is still young, only three weeks into a 16-game season. Football fans are stubborn bunch and showed no signs of walking out of crowded stadiums over protesting players, as Trump implored them to do. My guess is they never will.
But whether the president continues to trash talk the players, rest assured the protests will continue to make Americans aware of the nation’s unfinished racial issues.