If any doubts remain about the veracity of ESPN anchor Jemele Hill’s assessment of Donald Trump, the president spent Friday night and much of Saturday morning lashing out at black athletes—because said attacks play straight to his white nationalist base.
On Friday, while stumping in Alabama for GOP senate candidate Luther Strange, Trump diverted from his prepared remarks, as is his wont. After a lengthy pause, Trump stared grimly into the distance, and then unleashed a winding, unhinged spiel about NFL players who kneeled during the National Anthem. He asked the assembled crowd, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.’”
The audience cheered. Trump didn’t stop there, waxing nostalgic about the NFL of yore, when men—real men—could inflict permanent damage on one another without worrying about those pesky concussive and subconcussive blows to the head and long-term cognitive diseases, sounding like a bog-standard sports talk radio caller. “They’re ruining the game!” he whinged.
Trump added that ratings had dropped, partly because fans preferred to watch him, and encouraging anyone who witnesses the free expression of political thought should flee to a preferred safe space and boycott the NFL altogether.
“I guarantee things will stop,” he said. “Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”
(Not to try to parse Trump’s stream-of-consciousness blather, but with regards to his ability to swipe viewers from the NFL: that may have been the case during the election, but the current drop has far more to do with cord-cutting and the lousy product on the field.)
Trump’s anti-NFL comments in Huntsville were just the beginning. On Saturday morning, shortly following a Fox & Friends segment on the Golden State Warriors’ star, Stephen Curry. Specifically, Trump did not fancy Curry’s announcement that he had no desire to be feted by the White House, and so Trump tweeted that he never wanted Curry and the rest of those mean ol’ world champion Golden State Warriors to come to his party anyway.
Granted, as LeBron James helpfully pointed out, Curry wasn’t “hesitating.” He said outright that he had no intention of serving as Trump’s grinning prop.
Also, the insult “bum” has been dragged back into the lexicon, which is nice, given that it will probably irk Trump as much as any other (accurate) label. Of course, Trump doubled down on Saturday afternoon, pilfering a line or two from the Breitbart comments section.
It’s also worth mentioning that Trump is clawing back an invitation that doesn’t seem to exist. When the Warriors won the 2017 title, erroneous reports were published claiming the team had already voted not to go. Much of the roster, including Curry, have quite open in voicing their critiques of the current administration, but whether they’d trek to Washington was still up in the air as of Friday.
Even if the odds were against the Warriors choosing to stand by Trump’s side, there’s no evidence that the White House formally extended an offer, and Trump skipped out on congratulating the team by phone when they knocked off the Cavaliers in June.
This comes a week after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly called for Hill to be fired, yet oddly enough, neither Trump nor any of his various flacks deigned to weigh in on other celebrities who took shots at the president, like Miss America contestants, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel.
Trump’s close, personal friend Tom Brady also skipped out on a White House visit, and yet Trump didn’t say squat, going so far to pretend Brady didn't exist when the New England Patriots were standing on the White House lawn. And it’s hard to miss that Trump has expressed far more disdain for black athletes than he ever did neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, because a rude tweet or an insult lobbed while clutching a podium about a white person doesn’t rile up his MAGA fanboys.
For its part, the NFL did respond with some weak tea in which they failed to either mention Trump by name or rebuke what he said. The statement from Commissioner Roger Goodell instead highlighted the league’s charitable efforts following Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, saying only that “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players.”
The NFLPA, however, actually said something, and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts called the withdrawal by Trump a “badge of honor.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement on Saturday evening that he had been in favor of Curry and his team visiting the White House. Furthermore, Silver said, “I am disappointed thta that will not happen. More importantly, I am proud of our players for taking an active role in their communities and continuing to speak out on critically important issues.”
If you want to know what the NFL and NFL owners actually think, you just have to follow the money. As Yahoo’s Charles Robinson noted, Trump’s inaugural committee received a combined $7.25 million from eight NFL owners, and NFL Ventures, the NFL’s marketing, sponsorship, and branding arm, coughed up and additional $100,000. To date, no owner or team has issued a statement standing up for its employees, and the Dallas Cowboys' head coach punted.
The athletes themselves, though, aren’t holding back. They took Twitter to on Saturday to express their anger, offer thoughtful analysis or even laugh at the ridiculous notion that a sitting president would go to war with two sports leagues. The Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy called Trump an “asshole.” The Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul doubted that “[Trump’s] man enough to call any of those players a son of a bitch to their face,” advising the president to ”#StayInYoLane.” And Kobe Bryant, who is not known for taking a political stance at all, lent his name to the growing chorus. Colin Kaepernick’s mom even joined in, though Trump never specifically mentioned her son.
In an interview with Deadspin, Teresa Kaepernick said the degrading insults and pandering to racists is, “almost what I’ve come to expect from [Trump] and what most of us have come to expect from him.”
But ex-Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant may have put it best. "I'm actually glad Trump said what he did," he tweeted. "Publicly with an audience. Once again it empowers the players to live their truth."
He’s right. Expressions of anger on social media are one thing, but it’s not enough. The NFL is making it perfectly clear, here and now, that football players are wholly replaceable cogs, a stance that should have been patently obvious long ago, yet still comes days after players wrote a letter to Goodell and the NFLPA, asking that the league back their activism.
The true test comes Sunday at 1pm. Any NFL player still standing—regardless of race or ethnicity—is letting the world know that they are offering implicit support for a man who questions Americans’ basic right to free expression, and leans all the way into America's deep-seated racial animus. Beyond the NFL, their brethren in the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NFL, should realize this is a moment for solidarity and go full Spartacus, in whatever manner they can. Maybe follow the example set by the national champion University of North Carolina men’s basketball team, which won’t be shaking hands with Trump.
Even if a mass protest is exactly what Trump wants—a chance to stoke the fires of a still simmering culture war and provide a “distraction” from the staggering failures and ineptitudes that have been the one constant in his presidency—it doesn’t matter. Per reports, conversations about a collective response are already taking place. Good.