On the day that Donald Trump tried to mess with America’s national religion, professional football took the knee and beat The Divider-in-Chief at his own game.
What triumphed on Sunday wasn’t the bluster of a spoiled bully, but rather one of decency and the most fundamental of American values: The solidarity of a team.
From stadiums in the United States and London, the players — and critically — the owners — stood together, sending an unmistakable message: Trump could bluster but he would not prevail.
He was on their playing field now. And his ugly attempt to gain yardage with a cheap political trick hit a wall as immovable as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line.
Let’s be clear: There are few contemporary politicians better at bread and circuses than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Few know better than Trump how to manipulate the news cycle, how to create a firestorm of distraction, to gin up the rage of the crowd, all the better to blow whatever current controversy ails him off the front page.
Were you talking about Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s use of private email to conduct private White House business on Sunday? Were you talking about the escalating tensions with North Korea, punctuated by the same kind of childish name-calling, that now appears to have brought the United States to the brink of war?
Of course you weren’t. Mission accomplished.
Or so Trump thought.
But this time, rather than punching down, Trump took on a multibillion-dollar professional sports league, one whose gladiatorial matches own our Sunday afternoons, and one whose annual championship game brings the entire country to a halt on a cold night in February, a rare national unifier in our age of division.
And so it was, that as Trump called for mostly white team owners to either fire or suspend the black players who choose to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” those same owners and players — black and white alike — locked arms and stood against this small-minded tirade:
“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. Out! He’s fired,” Trump bellowed during a rally in Alabama on Friday night. “He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.’ And that owner ... they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
It might have been enough that the players locked arms. But the fact that they were joined by their risk-averse employers sent an even stronger signal.
Rebuffs from the likes of Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft and Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan, who had financially supported Trump were an unmistakable message: We may support you, but if you try to mess with our livelihoods and our players, you’re on your own.
On Twitter, Trump tried to claim that his anger toward the players “had nothing to do with race.” In fact, it has everything to do with race. But a president who puts Nazis and neo-Confederates on a level playing field with those who resist them wouldn’t understand that.
Former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick specifically took the knee last year to protest the treatment of blacks at the hands of mostly white police officers.
He was told to shut up and play; if he wanted to exercise his constitutional rights to free expression, he could do it on his own time — as if the rights conferred by the First Amendment are somehow situational or constrained by geography.
But as the rest of the nation got “woke,” so too did the professional athletes who are supposed to perform for our pleasure for 16 weekends during the fall and early winter.
As Trump tried to bring the NFL to heel; as he tried to falsely shame Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry for not accepting the “honor” of appearing at the White House, he ran into a barrier bigger than his imaginary border wall and irony just as towering.
The spoiled billionaire trying to get his own way decided to tangle with star athletes nearly as wealthy and, in this instance, nearly as powerful, as the Leader of the Free World, himself.
Trump should have remembered, however, that wealth confers a great deal, including the freedom not to bow to pressure and to march to beat of your own drummer.
For the players, this issue is a deeply personal one. It’s about equality and civil justice. As much as he wants to, Trump can’t separate that issue from the false flag of patriotism.
There are few things more patriotic than standing up by sitting down. And on Sunday, by taking the knee, the NFL won.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at email@example.com.