It's fall, and the NFL season has just started. And as Americans all over the country turn to football, it seems our politics have as well. On Saturday afternoon, President Trump tweeted his criticism of NFL players kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner to protest police brutality and racism, saying that a football player "making millions of dollars in the NFL" shouldn't be allowed to "disrespect" the flag or country by protesting.
The president had previously expressed his distaste for players kneeling during the national anthem in protest. At a rally Friday night in Alabama (to support Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange although the president veered off topic and at one point wondered whether endorsing Strange was a "mistake"), Trump expressed his anger at players protesting, encouraging owners to "get that son of a b*tch off the field" if players were to kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner.
On Saturday, after first angering NBA players for withdrawing the White House's invitation to Golden State Warriors' point guard Stephen Curry, the president doubled down on call for players protesting during NFL games to be fired. "If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect......our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"
By the time Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon, the NFL Players' Association had already responded to his comments the night before. NFLPA president Eric Winston tweeted out a statement calling the president's words "a slap in the face of the civil rights heroes of the past and present."
According to activist and journalist Shaun King, Trump's comments Friday night were already encouraging many NFL players to kneel in solidarity with their teammates at Sunday's games. He tweeted that "35 new players" will be protesting on Sunday.
ESPN reporter Jeff Darlington tweeted that his reporting suggested the same thing. "Tomorrow has potential to be a very memorable day across the NFL as many players are extremely emotional about Donald Trump comments," Darlington noted on Twitter. "Sources tell me Bills locker room, for instance, has been very emotional today as some players consider several possibilities for protest."
This all came before the president tweeted Saturday afternoon calling for players protesting to be fired. One can probably assume that whatever dissenting energy was coming from players before Trump's tweets has only bolstered since he added fuel to the fire.
With the White House having recently called for Jemele Hill, an ESPN anchor who tweeted that Trump was a "white supremacist," to be fired, Trump's attacks on black NFL players protesting racism have been seen by many as racist. Some have compared Trump's reaction to peaceful protests by NFL players — simply kneeling during the national anthem — to his equivocation about white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville — marching with flaming torches, coming to blows with counter-protesters, and eventually murdering someone with a car.
Some have also taken issue with how the president phrased players as having "the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL," pointing to the intense work and skill required by players to reach this point in their careers.
The controversy over NFL players protesting comes in the midst of even more revelations about the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disorder resulting from repeated concussions, in former NFL players. At Trump's Alabama rally Friday night, he expressed dismay that concerns about player safety have led to the game feeling toned down.
Others have also pointed to how Trump's opposition to protest and dissent when it is expressed by black football players and black sports anchors seems to conflict with his complaints about "political correctness" and not being able to say what you want.
Beyond any issues of the substance of Trump's complaints about NFL protesters, it is certainly an odd, and arguably unprecedented event to have a sitting US president call for the firing of a non-government employee for their exercise of free speech. And with Trump taking the issue head on, it's likely the protests will only get bigger in the future.