Three hours after Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations, implicating his former client in the process, the President opened a rally in West Virginia by attacking NFL players who protest police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem.
“Unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag,” Trump told the crowd on Aug. 21, going on to criticize ESPN for announcing it would not televise the anthem before Monday Night Football games. (ESPN does not traditionally show the anthem before Monday Night Football games.)
That night, just before the start of the 2018 NFL season, seemed like a bellwether. After all, last year, the President and members of his party eagerly waded into the debate over football players kneeling during the anthem. Even during the offseason, the NFL couldn’t escape controversy. In May, the league rolled out a policy for player behavior during the anthem—stand if you’re on the field, or stay in the locker room—that managed to satisfy almost nobody; it was rescinded two months later. And in June, Trump canceled the Super Bowl champion Eagles’ visit to the White House over the kneeling controversy, even though no Philadelphia players kneeled during the anthem last season. During training camp, Eagles defensive end Chris Long told The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas that league owners feared Trump would “weaponize football in November.”
So the league appeared to be heading for another tumultuous autumn, especially considering its coalescence with this year’s midterm elections, in which every House seat, 35 Senate seats and 36 governorships are on the ballot. But that’s not how either season—football or campaign—has played out.
Consider: Trump’s anti-kneeling tweets, a staple of last season, have subsided after a small flurry in August and September (none since Week 1). The Vice President’s show of leaving a Colts game last October to protest the players’ peaceful protest—a stunt that cost taxpayers $325,000, according to The Huffington Post—hasn’t had a 2018 equivalent. In general, the partisan acrimony that characterized last season has largely subsided, even as culture war issues remain central to the election. In other words, those cultural grievances are as vitriolic as ever, but on the eve of Election Day, those campaign battles largely don’t revolve around football.
So why hasn’t football been a focus? Most likely, other issues are drowning it out: healthcare, immigration, the Supreme Court. But just as significantly, the NFL has avoided the self-inflicted errors that have characterized the league’s handling of the protests over the last two years, like the short-lived anthem policy.
That the NFL feels decidedly less partisan this season is good news for the league, of course. While Colin Kaepernick and a few other players started kneeling in 2016, the backlash from conservative fans was relatively tame compared to ’17, when Trump called for demonstrators to be fired at a campaign rally (“get that son of a b---- off the field!”) and players responded by protesting en masse.
This year, the President is mostly on the sidelines, which makes owners happy, but also allows players who choose to demonstrate against racism during the anthem—Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson, Robert Quinn and a handful of others—to do so without drawing such intense partisan anger in response.
To be sure, the anthem debate hasn’t been entirely absent from campaign politics. During the primaries, which largely took place before the regular season began, some Republicans saw the issue as red meat for their base. “Yes, I stand when I hear the Star Spangled Banner,” Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn declared in a video launching her campaign for Senate. Another Tennesseean, Diane Black, aired a campaign ad last Super Bowl Sunday alleging the NFL “doesn’t respect the patriotism of our national anthem.” (She lost the gubernatorial primary.) In an advertisement produced by Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita, a narrator accused “liberal elites” of disrespecting “our flag” over grainy footage of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, sandwiched between imagery of more traditional conservative villains Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. (Rokita lost the senate primary.)
Even now, with primaries long decided, you can find some Republicans around the country halfheartedly resuscitating the debate. In one National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee advertisement, a narrator accuses House candidate Dan Feehan, a Minnesota Democrat and an Iraq War veteran who earned a bronze star for valor, of “celebrating Colin Kaepernick’s protests of our national anthem.” (Kaepernick was protesting racism and police brutality, not the anthem itself.) A number of other Republicans—Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp—tout the sanctity of the anthem in ads or on the campaign trail.
“The idea [is] that you can gin up excitement and enthusiasm among a base that otherwise feels a little bit battered right now,” explains Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant and a vocal anti-Trump conservative. “There are some accomplishments on the books, but the problem is the tax bill never moved polling numbers the way the House and Senate expected it to.”
President Trump isn’t on the ballot this November, but he might as well be. Midterm elections are rarely easy for the president’s party, and this president’s unpopularity (53% of voters disapprove of his job performance) leaves Republicans facing a difficult environment. It turns out the GOP’s policy accomplishments the last two years—tax reform, regulatory rollbacks, two new conservative Supreme Court justices—haven’t been enough to close the Democrats’ enthusiasm gap, which explains Trump’s reliance on cultural grievances.
“I think cultural issues are going to be dominant in any election in the foreseeable future,” GOP strategist Brad Todd predicted—accurately, at least so far—to me this summer. “Nothing lasts forever, but we are at a moment of great cultural schism where the two coasts differ greatly from the center of the country both on what the priorities ought to be and where the country ought to be on them.”
In the weeks leading up to the midterms, Trump has indeed seized on cultural battles, but protesting NFL players have played a secondary role to immigrants as his primary object of resentment. Wilson, for one, questions the wisdom of bashing the peaceful protest of NFL players. “The anthem stuff is one of these ‘owning the libs’ categories of Donald Trump’s strategy,” he says. “It works in places, and it works in parts, but I don’t think it works holistically.”
Yes, a majority of Americans say it’s “inappropriate” to take a knee during the anthem, according to an NBC/WSJ poll in September, but the broader picture is more complicated: A Huffington Post/YouGov survey in May found a plurality opposes the league fining teams with players who kneel. Attacking black athletes for their supposed lack of patriotism might be a reliable applause line at a Trump rally, but the politics are complex—and even though Trump won in 2016 after criticizing Kaepernick, it’s not definitively clear that the issue helps Republicans. “If someone does something and they’re successful, oftentimes whatever they do is attributed to their success,” says veteran Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, “even though it may not have been a contribution.”
Notably, it was a Democrat who drew the most headlines this campaign season for his take on the NFL protests: Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who went viral for his eloquent response to a question about the anthem in August.
“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place,” O’Rourke said in a video that generated around 50 million views and garnered praise from athletes like LeBron James.
O’Rourke’s opponent, Ted Cruz, quickly pounced. As POLITICO reported Sunday, the response “provided just the cultural wedge issue Cruz needed,” and the incumbent senator quickly produced attack ads starring a double-amputee Vietnam veteran. After O'Rourke’s video gained national attention, longtime Republican consultant Ed Rogers editorialized in The Washington Post: “Kneeling NFL players will help Republicans in November.” But the anthem's significance to the Texas senate race is more the exception than the rule of this campaign season. Whatever the results of Tuesday’s elections, it seems unlikely that many voters will cast their ballots with Kaepernick in mind.
Going forward, the question is whether that’s temporary or the new normal. Within the league, the controversy is far from over. Kaepernick, remember, is accusing the league’s owners of colluding to keep him off the field, and some players who have protested—notably Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins—disagree on the direction of the Players’ Coalition. Just this September, news of Kaepernick’s Nike contract drew a Presidential response. But mostly, as long as athletes use their platforms to protest racism, there will be politicians who seek to exploit that. And if O’Rourke’s viral moment is indicative, liberal politicians—especially presidential hopefuls—might try to distinguish themselves by embracing the demonstrations, which would surely provoke a conservative reaction.
So the NFL might be pleasantly surprised with this fall’s temporary return, of sorts, to normalcy. But the league remains in the political crosshairs, and—unofficially, at least—the 2020 presidential election starts on Wednesday.