The world’s most powerful man picked a busy week to go to war with America’s most popular sport. Donald Trump was navigating a nuclear standoff with North Korea when he touched down in Alabama for a political rally on Sept. 22. In Puerto Rico, millions of Americans were without water or electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria. A plan to revamp the nation’s health care system faced a pivotal hurdle in the Senate.
But the President had another matter on his mind: the squad of football players who had protested racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling, raising their fists or locking their arms during the national anthem. “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 asked the crowd of supporters in Huntsville.
Trump sprays outrage like a comedian testing material, and the thunderous applause told the President he had struck gold. So he pressed the attack. Some two dozen times over the next five days, he questioned the protesters’ patriotism and labeled them “privileged” millionaires who lacked respect or gratitude.
It was a remarkable thing for a President to devote so much energy to attacking athletes for peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. But the spat over sports wasn’t just a diversion but a move straight from Trump’s political playbook. Confronted with crises, he creates new ones, picking fights that stir his supporters and outrage his opponents. In this case, he spotted a wedge issue that pits his rural, conservative white base against both wealthy black athletes and liberal elites who scold the NFL for everything from racist team logos to soft-pedaling the risks of head trauma. White House advisers were pleased that the President had found a way to turn Colin Kaepernick–the unemployed quarterback who pioneered the kneeling protest–into the new “Crooked Hillary.”
But quite apart from whether North Korea or Puerto Rico was a better focus of his attention, why run the risk of blowback by taking on one of the few American institutions that appeals across party lines, state lines, class and color lines? For this President, the words usually matter less than the music. The point was not that he was attacking the actions of black football players; the point was that he was telling his supporters, once again, I’m one of you, I’m on your side, and I’m willing to endure the ridicule of the elites in order to say out loud what you are thinking. The descants about political correctness, racial grievance and class resentment toward millionaire athletes all reminded his base why he was one of them.
More important, it reminded Washington Republicans that he was not one of them. So long as he has the fervent devotion of a core Republican cadre, he is to be feared. The same voters who preferred Alabama’s Constitution-defying, anti–gay rights, Muslim-bashing judge Roy Moore to Establishment opponent Luther Strange threaten every mainstream Republican. And yes, Trump officially supported Strange, but everyone knew that Moore was the true Trumpist in the race, and he prevailed by a wide margin. Is it any wonder, in this climate, that one of the Senate’s most respected statesmen, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, announced that he would not seek re-election next year?
So began a Sunday of football when the spectacle on the sidelines outshone the action on the field. The Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars set the tone from London, in the first game on Sept. 24. Some players took a knee, while others linked arms in solidarity–including Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who was among seven NFL owners to donate $1 million or more to Trump’s Inauguration. Members of the Miami Dolphins warmed up in #Imwithkap T-shirts. At the Atlanta Falcons–Detroit Lions game in Detroit, singer Rico LaVelle knelt while performing the anthem, joining 10 players. In Nashville, every player on the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks chose to remain in the locker room during the anthem. Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews took the field with the words We all bleed the same and we are one written on his cleats. Even New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close Trump friend and generous donor, criticized the President’s remarks.
The movement spread beyond football. Basketball star LeBron James called the President a “bum” after Trump rescinded a White House invitation to NBA champions the Golden State Warriors following criticism from guard Stephen Curry, one of the world’s most popular athletes. The Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA left the floor during the national anthem before Game 1 of the league finals. Hall of Fame hoopster Bill Russell, age 83, joined Twitter to post a photo of his 6 ft. 10 in. frame kneeling, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, above the hashtag #takeaknee. Bruce Maxwell, a rookie catcher for the Oakland A’s, became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem.
Taken together, it was the largest, most potent demonstration of social activism among athletes in the history of the U.S. “This was a watershed moment,” says Harry Edwards, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist who helped organize the 1968 sports protest that culminated with U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics.
Which doesn’t mean the players had won. The moment of unity on the field obscured the deepening divisions that Trump was exploiting. His fight with sports is part of a larger culture war that brings race, religion, rights, privilege and patriotism on the battlefield. The assertion of power by black men sparked predictable counterdemonstrations from some of the NFL’s white supporters. Fans in New England jeered their own players; crowds in Arizona booed the Dallas Cowboys and the team owner Jerry Jones, as the team knelt before the anthem on Monday Night Football. After left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was the only Pittsburgh Steeler to take the field for the national anthem before a game against the Bears in Chicago, sales of the obscure lineman’s jersey briefly became the NFL’s top seller. (Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, later said the move to separate from his teammates was an accident.)
In Greenville, S.C., the Palmetto Restaurant and Ale House announced it would no longer show NFL games until the protests subsided. DirecTV offered customers refunds for their pricey Sunday Ticket packages. In Washington County, Pennsylvania, a local volunteer fire chief wrote a Facebook post with a racial slur aimed at Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ black head coach. When Stevie Wonder began a performance in New York City’s Central Park by kneeling in solidarity, former GOP Congressman Joe Walsh called the legendary singer “another ungrateful black millionaire.”
“I don’t think any American wants to take away the right to free speech of professional football players,” says Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. “I wouldn’t have said it the way he said it, but President Trump is saying what a lot of Americans are thinking. Does there have to be politics to everything? I mean, do you really have to inject politics into a football game?”
The idea that sports are a space somehow cocooned from politics has always been something of a myth. But in this case it was Trump who trampled the boundaries, spurring athletes to speak out in response. “People say you have to keep politics out of sports,” says A’s catcher Maxwell, the son of a white mother and a black military-veteran father, who was raised in Alabama and plays in a league where just 7.7% of players are black. “But he’s the one who put politics into sports when he decided to demean certain athletes as players and as people.”
Like so many of his feuds, the tale of Donald Trump and the National Football League began with grand ambitions, before spiraling into acrimony and lawsuits. In 1983, the real estate mogul bought the New Jersey Generals, one of 18 teams in the upstart United States Football League (USFL), in time for its second season the following year. The USFL was conceived as a complement to the NFL, not a competitor; it played its games in the spring. Trump had a different vision. Within two years he persuaded his fellow owners to move to the fall, and he sued the NFL, alleging antitrust violations.
As the USFL bled cash, the courts stonewalled Trump’s legal attack. The upstart league, which had sought up to $1.7 billion in damages, was awarded a measly $3 in the case. The disastrous outcome left the new league in ruins. But Trump never abandoned his dream of joining the exclusive club of owners in the most prestigious American sport. In 1988, he considered buying the New England Patriots. In 2014, he said he offered $1 billion to purchase the Buffalo Bills, but was outbid.
When his overtures were spurned, he lashed out against the league like a jilted suitor. As the NFL grapples with an escalating crisis over CTE–the degenerative brain disease associated with the head trauma players suffer on the field–Trump has derided league executives for their attempts to mitigate the damage inflicted by collisions. “Football has become soft like our country has become soft,” he thundered in January 2016 at a rally.
Trump’s lament over efforts to guard human safety, of all things, is one more way Trump has turned the sport into a new front in the culture wars. “If there’s ever an issue that shouldn’t be political, it’s head trauma in football,” says cultural historian Michael Oriard, a former NFL lineman. And yet, he adds, “the response Trump gets seems to justify the assumption that the nanny state or whomever are ruining the grand old violent game.”
Indeed, Trump trotted out the bit again during his visit to football-mad Alabama. The President’s remarks came one day after a new report indicated that Aaron Hernandez, a former Patriots tight end who was convicted of murder, had suffered from the disease when he committed suicide in prison in April at age 27.
Professional sports have long been a looking glass for American culture and identity. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the black track star Jesse Owens dominated international competition, dispelling Nazi theories of racial superiority in the process. In 1940s Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, marking the beginning of the end of segregation in the nation’s top sports leagues.
The social role of athletes intensified in the 1960s and ’70s, when superstars with an activist bent such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe helped shape the era’s civil-rights movement. Tennis star Billie Jean King blazed a trail for female and LGBT athletes, and HIV-positive diver Greg Louganis challenged misconceptions about the virus. The Olympic-gold-medalist decathlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner changed the debate about transgender issues after coming out as Caitlyn. Part of the power of sports is that the imaginary intimacy between fans and their icons can spur social change.
By the dawn of the 1990s, though, star athletes had become more concerned with protecting their earning potential than using their talent to oppose social injustice. Michael Jordan dodged politics as deftly as he did defenders: in the mid-1990s, the native Tar Heel declined to endorse a black candidate in a Senate contest against the segregationist Jesse Helms. “Republicans buy shoes too,” he supposedly told a friend, according to an account by author Sam Smith. In a Nike commercial, fellow basketball star Charles Barkley delivered a line that captured the ethos of the era: “I am not a role model.” Silence on social issues was seen as a fair trade-off for fat contracts and lucrative endorsement deals.
Bit by bit, and then in a series of giant leaps, that reticence to engage has faded. NBA stars such as LeBron James and Chris Paul endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Four years later, James led his Miami Heat teammates in donning hoodies after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen in Florida, was shot dead. In 2016, NBA stars opened the ESPY Awards with a speech against police brutality. Then came Colin Kaepernick’s sideline protest, which trickled through the ranks of college athletics–where a debate has raged over the creation of a multibillion-dollar industry on the backs of free labor–all the way down to youth sports. It was in this context that Trump’s attack on Kaepernick and the NFL landed.
It has been a jolt to the NFL in particular. The NFL is one of the most culturally conservative professional leagues, and it has arguably the trickiest relationship with race. It is a sport in which mostly white fans pay to watch mostly black (some 70% of players are African American) athletes pummel one another. The gladiatorial aspect is underlined by the fact that 30 of the 31 private-team owners are white. Unlike in the NBA and MLB, contracts are not guaranteed, which means that every time a player takes the field, his career can end with a single violent tackle. The owners veer politically conservative, yet the economic victories that they have won–from salary caps to franchise-player tags–defy free-market principles.
Some of this tension is built into the NFL’s founding. The nation’s first professional football teams were in once booming Rust Belt cities like Muncie, Ind.; Rock Island, Ill.; and Akron, Ohio; and the league works hard to promote its roots in America’s manufacturing base. The NFL Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, and the names of iconic franchises like the Steelers and Green Bay Packers are living tributes to blue collar identity. The deepening cultural divide between its athletes and its audience is one reason the NFL studiously tries to avoid controversy.
In one of his many tweets about the player protests, Trump insisted “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” But it escaped no one that Trump had uncorked his attack in a state with an ugly history of racial discord. “The people cheering,” Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told TIME, “was the most hurtful thing.” Trump has a history of fanning tribal divisions, including comments about the Central Park Five case in 1989, the racially loaded ads he ran against potential Native American casino competitors in 2000 and his campaign-trail attacks.
For NFL players, it was hard to square the fact that the President had called black athletes “sons of bitches” for peacefully using their constitutional right to free speech, just five weeks after defending the same rights for violent white nationalists marching on Charlottesville, Va. “Why didn’t he condemn what was going on in Charlottesville?” Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall told TIME hours after he and 31 teammates knelt on the field before a 26-16 loss to the Bills. “For him to condemn us for exercising our rights, that says a lot about him as a President.” Says a White House official: “The national anthem and the American flag are symbols of the commitment Americans make to our country and its ideals. They serve as a humbling reminder of those who have fought and died to ensure that we remain one nation, under God, indivisible–something for which the President will always stand firm.”
Where will the national-anthem controversy end? A 2015 joint oversight report released by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, argued that the military pageantry that has crept into professional sports is partly about profit. The study found that $6.8 million in Defense Department contracts had been doled out to professional sports leagues to showcase what the Senators called “paid patriotism”–from on-field color-guard performances and re-enlistment ceremonies to sponsorship deals for performances of “God Bless America.”
But now the battle lines have been drawn by the President. “The venue is not what it’s about,” says Representative Brian Mast, a Florida Republican and Purple Heart recipient who lost both legs in an IED explosion in Kandahar in 2010. “It’s about disrespecting the flag and our country. They’re using the national anthem as an opportunity.”
According to a senior White House official, some Administration aides, including chief of staff John Kelly, were peeved by the President’s focus on the sideline behavior of professional athletes at a moment when challenges like threats from North Korea and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria loom. But other Republicans saw a matchup to exploit.
As these strategists read it, so long as the President could cast the debate as patriots against protesters, he would win. Polls bear out that view: in an Ipsos/Reuters survey released on Sept. 26, 58% of respondents said athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem, compared with just 33% who disagreed. From that vantage, picking the fight was a shrewd survival tactic.
For the players and the league, the goal is simpler. “We wanted to show our fan base that we support each other, that we have each other’s back, and we’ll continue to be champions for our communities,” says Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his fist before the Sept. 24 game and has been a leader of the protest movement.
Trump’s rhetoric also turned conservative owners who support him into social activists, if fleetingly. Many knelt, locked arms or released statements in support of their players. Such displays of sideline strength could buy the NFL some goodwill among the growing segment of its fan base turned off by concerns about the CTE crisis and the league’s handling of domestic-violence cases involving its players. While those owners may have recognized the value of the gesture, none have been willing to risk the blowback of signing Kaepernick, who is widely considered to be more talented than many other backup quarterbacks in the league.
Even on an extraordinary Sunday, however, the NFL was far from unified: overall, just 12% of players knelt on Sept. 24, according to an ESPN estimate. As his teammates protested, Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe told the network that he thought the display was disrespectful to military veterans. “The greatest country in the world, and you reside here,” Wolfe said. “Why do you stay?”
The divide is a reminder of how differently people see the American condition. It’s also notable that few, if any, prominent white NFL players, such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or JJ Watt, have taken a knee, though Brady called Trump’s remarks “divisive” and all three linked arms with teammates. Such a move could send a powerful message to white America that black players are fighting for issues that matter to everyone.
“When somebody with that huge a name uses a platform to fight for a cause, it moves mountains,” says Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas, a Stanford graduate who knelt during the anthem throughout the 2016 season but has not been repeating the gesture this year. “It just can’t be black players. If we get more of our NFL brothers who are white, the narrative is going to change. It’s that simple.”
The protests, if they continue, should spark other conversations, not only about race, justice and inequality but also about how to respond to a President with a knack for choosing battles that benefit him, no matter how divisive. As has often been the case, Trump turned a protest with specific goals–from racial equality to criminal-justice reform–into a referendum on the President himself.
“The most frustrating thing is that people weren’t kneeling because they believe police brutality is too high or because of racial inequality,” says Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL long snapper whose conversations with Kaepernick helped coax the quarterback to kneel rather than sit in protest. “They took a knee because they don’t like Donald Trump. We’re now equating the American flag with a person–not the 300 million diverse people it’s supposed to represent.”
It is a talent that Trump’s foes have come to appreciate. “He does a good job of picking his opponents,” says Terry Sullivan, a Republican consultant who managed Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “That is his gift: he has a unique ability to bring down the discourse and drag down his opponents to his level, so that their arguments seem even more ridiculous than his.” As another GOP strategist whose candidate competed against Trump in the 2016 primary frames it: “We were playing on his stage the entire campaign.”
Or to put it in football parlance: Trump’s playbook is to turn every battle into an away game for his opponents. Until they figure out how to win on Trump’s turf, each new provocation by the President is likely to end in a victory for the White House.
–With reporting by BEN GOLDBERGER/NEW YORK; and PHILIP ELLIOTT and ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the October 09, 2017 issue of TIME.