Expect lots and lots of teeth-gnashing over this slab of very red meat thrown to the crowd by Donald Trump at last night’s rally for Luther Strange in Alabama, on social media and talking-heads shows. ESPN will likely melt down during tomorrow’s NFL coverage. It’ll all be as meaningless as this id-venting by Trump, a stream-of-consciousness rant aimed at an easy target with a populist base — NFL players protesting during the national anthem at games.
If anything, Trump might have escalated the stakes for those not kneeling:
— POLITICO (@politico) September 23, 2017
President Donald Trump on Friday excoriated National Football League players for protesting silently during the national anthem, saying they show a “total disrespect of our heritage.”
“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,’” Trump said at a rally in Alabama for Republican Sen. Luther Strange.
Normally, this would seem a very odd choice of topics for a rally ostensibly to promote a Senate primary candidate in an Alabama special election. The state doesn’t have an NFL franchise, for one thing, and what Luther Strange or the Senate have to do with this topic is hard to fathom. The motive isn’t that hard to grasp, though. Roy Moore is running as the True Trumpian in the race, and the keeper of populist fervor opposing the Swamp Creature of Mitch McConnell. Trump’s reminding the crowd that he’s the arbiter of Trumpness, plus scoring some easy culture-war points to fire up the crowd, and that he favors Strange as his best ally in the race.
It’s almost impossible to take this argument seriously. Trump’s enough of a businessman to know that employers don’t “fire” people who have contracts and a union, at least not without cause laid out in the bargaining agreement. Owners could bench them, but they’d still be on the sidelines for the anthem to protest. It would cost far more money and time to try firing them than it would to ignore it and let the fad eventually fade away into obscurity.
Technically there’s no First Amendment issue with Trump’s demand to shut down the on-field protests, as owners can and do set limits on the speech of their employees in the workplace. A clear example of this in the NFL is the uniform regulations that restrict almost all personal speech in terms of equipment and the manner of wearing and using it. The league also compels speech in other contexts by requiring participation in postgame press conferences, which replaced locker-room access for reporters. However, there still is a bad odor to having a president demand people get fired for political speech, no matter how silly or insubstantial the demand is, when the executive branch exists in no small measure to defend free political speech.
Just to offer a counter to this: How would the same people cheering this have reacted to President Hillary demanding Hollywood executives fire conservatives in the film and television industry who expressed skepticism of climate change? Or, historically speaking, if Barack Obama had demanded that actors who took part in Tea Party rallies get blackballed? Technically none of those situations would have been First Amendment cases either, but it would be outrageous, in the literal sense of the word. We would talk about nothing else, and we’d have taken it a lot more seriously than Trump means this. Believe me. It would have been yuuuuuuuuuge.
Finally, though, Trump may have provided even more cachet to the anthem protests, plus blunted the shut-up-and-play arguments against them. Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron wondered why no one’s telling Trump to stay in his lane when they’re telling athletes to stay in theirs:
Does anyone tell trump to stick to politics, like they tell us to stick to sports? Smh.
— Eric Ebron (@Ebron85) September 23, 2017
After this, what will be more likely: NFL players decide to obey Trump, or NFL players make a special show of defying Trump? Given his relative popularity in the urban areas that support these teams, bet heavily on the latter. And even those who might have eschewed protesting during the anthem before this for reasons of patriotism will now have incentive to show solidarity with their teammates, knowing full well that Trump’s comments will put pressure on them to show that they’re not going to take orders from him.
This fad may have petered out naturally after a few more months; Trump’s all but guaranteed that we’ll get it through the 2020 election. And that may mean that NFL players will need to keep it going through 2024, given the unpopularity of the protests everywhere else. It’s a win-win, I guess. However, as Michael Ramirez pointed out two days ago, the market provides a much more effective response than government pressure.
— Michael Ramirez (@Ramireztoons) September 20, 2017