Trump’s influence has the NFL anthem issue in turmoil

Jamie C. Harris | 7/26/2018, 2:37 p.m. | Updated on 7/26/2018, 2:42 p.m.
When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rolled out the league’s national anthem policy in late May, the overarching message was unambiguous: ...
The NFL and NFL Players;' Association has agreed to put the League's new national anthem policy on hold.

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rolled out the league’s national anthem policy in late May, the overarching message was unambiguous: The multi-billion-dollar industry was doing what they thought was in the best interest of their bottom line. Moreover, they were reacting to the incessant rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump, who had referred to players carrying out various forms of protests during the playing of the national anthem as “sons of bitches” and “unpatriotic.”

Trump’s sway over his base is cult-like. His current approval rating among Republican voters is a staggering 88 percent, and a significant number of them zealously follow the NFL. The average age of an NFL viewer is 50. Whites are a distinct majority of fans that fill stadiums as well as watch via television and digital platform. The largest voting demographic in the 2016 presidential election was those between the ages of 45 and 64, which was 40 percent of the electorate. Women made up 52 percent of voters and men 48 percent. Men overwhelmingly chose Trump, with 53 percent making him their choice as opposed to 41 percent of women.

However, a plurality of NFL viewers are women. Nielsen, the global information, data and measurement company, reported that NFL viewership last year comprised 53 percent men and 47 percent women. Yet, although 54 percent of all women who cast votes did so for Hillary Clinton, 52 percent of white women checked Trump on their ballot.

So when the divisive president uses vitriolic and coded racist language to refer to NFL players, of which 70 percent are Black, he is specifically speaking to his ardent supporters who drive NFL ratings and revenue.

“All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again,” Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula said, in referring to Trump’s Twitter posts and assertions, during what was supposed to be a private meeting last October between NFL owners, players and league executives to examine the controversial protests, which were a response to police shootings of Black men and social injustices. Nevertheless, audio of the meeting was leaked and first reported by The New York Times.

The policy ratified in May by NFL owners required all players who are on the field when the national anthem is being played or performed to stand. It provided an option for players to remain in the locker room without being penalized. If players did not comply, their teams would be subject to a fine, with the teams being granted the power to fine players, potentially offsetting their designated financial penalty.

The unilateral design and approval of the policy was shortsighted and destined for widespread pushback from the outset. “I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” said New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson after the policy was made public.

“If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players,” he continued. “Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines…”

The Jets’ owner, billionaire Robert “Woody” Johnson IV, Christopher’s brother, has been one of Trump’s biggest backers and was rewarded by being appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.

Last Thursday, the NFL and the NFLPA released a joint statement that the anthem policy will not be immediately enforced. “The NFL and NFLPA, through recent discussions, have been working on a resolution to the anthem issue. In order to allow this constructive dialogue to continue, we have come to a standstill agreement.” This statment was issued after the NFLPA filed a grievance July 10.

Unsurprisingly, last Friday, Trump injected himself into the issue again, tweeting, “The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again—can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”