Social media exploded this weekend after President Trump, at a rally in Alabama, urged NFL owners to “fire” players who refuse to stand for the national anthem before games. He later exhorted fans to boycott the league until players stopped “disrespecting Flag and Country.” NFL running back LeSean “Shady” McCoy called Trump an “asshole,” and NBA superstar LeBron James called the president a “bum.” After Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said that he was considering not attending an event at the White House, Trump disinvited the whole team.
Though players, sportswriters, and even NFL owners seemed shocked that Trump would respond so bluntly to criticism of him and to the increasing politicization of sports, the president’s remarks were predictable, something that those who elected him last November would expect of the man who has already broken more conventions than most of his recent predecessors combined. You don’t have to be living in flyover country to know, moreover, that to some fans of the NFL and NBA who are also Trump voters, it’s McCoy and other players who are the a-holes.
It’s often said that trends in professional sports mirror the larger society, and certainly the growing distance between increasingly rich players—“tattooed millionaires,” to some—and their fans reflects the same kind of division that drove millions of blue-collar voters to Trump. Once upon a time, professional athletes not only came out of working-class, scrappy neighborhoods, but they also pretty much stayed working class their entire lives. Until as recently as the late 1960s, NFL lineman worked construction or loaded trucks in the offseason to pay their bills. Players with a college degree traded on their celebrity status to sell stocks or insurance. (The policy my mother cashed in when my father died was sold to him in the early 1960s by a retired New York Giants player). Many of today’s players, by contrast, live in a world of ostentatious homes, fast cars, and red-carpet celebrity appearances, far from the struggles of those whose support pays their salaries. These players have deemed themselves important enough to impose their political views on ordinary fans watching sports as a respite from life’s daily grind.
The NFL is the logical battleground for Trump’s latest counterattack. The league’s fans are more likely to lean conservative than fans of other leagues, and the sportswriter Jason Whitlock has described the league itself as a conservative institution, though one that has “made millionaires out of thousands of black men.” The anthem protests, started last season by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, came about at the same time that NFL ratings were declining. Though the league at first discounted any relationship between the ratings and the controversy, subsequent studies have confirmed that the protests have in fact in driven away viewers who find the posturing tasteless. That should be no surprise to Giants owner John Mara, who observed that when his team was considering signing Kaepernick, fans were vocally opposed: “All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue: ‘If any of your players ever do that, we are never coming to another Giants game,’” Mara said. Over the weekend, Mara called Trump’s remarks “divisive,” but given what Mara himself has seen and heard over the last year, what did he expect?
Until just a few years ago, the NFL, a quasi-sacred institution upholding “America’s Game,” seemed invulnerable to criticism. Then health concerns concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy emerged, making the league the target of doctors and trial lawyers, who see the rich league as an easy target. Every few months more troubling news emerges, including the recent revelation that former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide while serving life in prison for murder, was suffering from an extreme case of neurodegenerative brain disease—likely caused by playing football—that might have contributed to his violent behavior. In the midst of this growing existential threat, with participation in youth football diminishing, the league’s players courted more controversy by responding to Trump with widespread demonstrations on Sunday—including whole teams protesting during the national anthem. (One notable exception was Steelers player Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, who came out of the locker room and stood alone for the anthem.) If players and officials think Trump will retreat on this issue, they haven’t been paying attention. And if they believe that their world is impervious, they’ve forgotten that America has had, over the last 75 years, several different favorite sports—from boxing to baseball—that eventually gave way.
Players, sportswriters, and maybe even the owners seem to think that fans will find it impossible to give up football on Sundays in the fall. It’s not. A few years ago, I finally stopped buying the season tickets to the Giants that my father had first purchased 50 years ago and rebought every subsequent year. It was painless and a long time coming; I now spend fall weekends largely watching amateur youth sports from the sidelines. It’s an exhilarating experience, free from egotistical victory dances and other forms of inane exhibitionism, including juvenile posturing from adults that masquerades as deep social commentary.
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