A week ago, just four professional football players knelt when the American national anthem played to protest against racism and the oppression of people of color in the US. But once president Donald Trump waded into the matter, more than 130 players in the National Football League (NFL) sat, knelt, or raised their fists in protest in a single day.
The unprecedented show of defiance hammers home what the NFL’s owners know all too well: No matter how much Trump has gained from fomenting racial tensions elsewhere, he can’t win that game with the NFL. African-American men make up 6% of the US population, but nearly 70% of players in the NFL. These players are the lifeblood of the league’s billions of dollars in sponsorship, merchandise, and ticket sales. Simply put, without the allegiance of black players to the game, the NFL’s business model would collapse.
Its business is already under stress. Thanks to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who months ago kneeled at the national anthem to spur debate over race and police brutality, the league has put off many fans who believe the NFL isn’t doing enough to fight inequality. It’s also been fending off damning research on player concussions, and accusations of domestic violence and sexual assault among players.
So when Trump said at a rally for a Republican senator that NFL bosses should respond to players kneeling in protest with, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!” the NFL could only respond in one way. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he was disappointed with Trump’s “divisive” comments. Shahid Khan, the NFL’s only Muslim owner, joined in on the protest and locked arms with his team. Criticism extended outside the league, with Eric Holder Jr, former US attorney general, pointing out that the protest was not without precedent in the US.
Friends and supporters of Trump within the NFL joined in on the chorus of condemnation. Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a friend of Trump’s, noted his was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president.” Rex Ryan, the former coach of the Jets and Bill, who once introduced Trump during a rally in the run up to the presidential election, said (paywall): “I’m reading these comments and it’s appalling to me and I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be.”
Players had united against Trump’s comments (paywall) on Sunday. The Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem in Nashville. While many players kneeled during the national anthem, others, including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who had once described Trump as a “good friend,” locked arms with his teammates during the national anthem.
The president likely thought his comments would jibe with his most loyal demographic: white males. After all, the NFL’s fan base is overwhelmingly white (roughly 83% white and 64% male, according to one study). But rancor isn’t good for business, especially the kind that pits prized employees against its most loyal customers. As Kraft of the New England Patriots put it: “There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics.”