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Donald Trump vs. NFL: A story of unnecessary roughness

Donald Trump is saying people should be fired for exercising their freedom of speech. Hillary Clinton supporters used to say the same thing about conservatives.

The fact that Donald Trump has broken most of his campaign promises to lead a non-interventionist foreign policy is not as surprising as it is disappointing. Many if not most western politicians break their promises, but what’s still odd about Trump is that he broke promises he never needed to make in the first place. 2016, like most US elections was largely won and lost on domestic rather than foreign policy issues, disheartening as this might seem for those who realise there can be no liberty and the pursuit of happiness without life itself.

While spectator sports in the US have had a long history of occasional radicalism, specifically from black American athletes, Donald Trump’s intervention into the “Take A Knee” phenomenon in the NFL, is something new, as it represents Trump attacking an entire popular sport which is popular with many conservatives, while at the same time attacking the First Amendment to the US Constitution, that so many of his supporters rallied behind when the Democrats attempted to censor their freedom of speech during the 2016 campaign.

When it comes to black athletes making history in the US, one can point first to Jack Johnson breaking the race divide in Boxing and later to Jackie Robinson who became America’s first black professional baseball star in 1947. Even more importantly from the wider international perspective, in 1966, Muhammad Ali lost his professional boxing licence and was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.

Ali became a genuine political spokesman as well as the world’s most famous boxer, in the aftermath of his opposition to the US war on Vietnam. But far from intervening in Ali’s statements, the White House stayed clear of Ali until 1977 when he was invited by newly elected President Jimmy Carter. In other words, not until Ali’s stance against the war was vindicated by history, would mainstream Washington go near a man often called the greatest modern sportsman and the greatest boxer of all time.

A few years after Ali’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, during the 1968 Olympic Games, US track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists during the playing of the US national anthem at the medal ceremony. The move was largely panned by the media at the time as un-patriotic and even ‘communist’, even though subsequently, Carlos and Smith have become iconic figures in many parts of the United States.

Throughout this period, the NFL stayed largely apolitical. Ironically, one of the most controversial things in professional American football during the 1960s was New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s rock and roll hairstyle and fur coats.

Times however, have changed and it is rather surreal.

At the turn of the millennium, the NFL was the most popular professional sport in the US and its appeal while apolitical was generally culturally conservative. The jokes about ‘only stupid Republican voting men’ liking sports and football in particular, were mainstays of liberal US comedians, especially those who sought to undermine masculinity and conservatism more widely.

It was during the Presidency of Barack Obama that the US Defense Department allocated millions of Dollars to promote ultra-patriotic NFL pre-game displays featuring field-sized flags, military flyovers and fireworks. This story got little attention at the time, in spite of many libertarian groups finding the displays to be a waste of money.

But in September of 2016, this changed. Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, a radical city, but also one with a storied NFL history, decided to kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior the the start of the game. Thus, an official tug-of-war between pro-military factions and free speech activists started to take shape on the gridiron.

While Barack Obama carefully dodged the issue when asked about it in September of 2016, Donald Trump has delved into the issue stating that he would tell those who allow kneeling for the anthem: “Get that son of a bitch off the field”. It has not stopped there. A quick look at Donald Trump’s recent Tweets and it would be difficult to tell whether he is more concerned with North Korea or NFL players and owners.

While the sporting establishment in the 1960s generally turned against Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, today the NFL, including many team owners, have expressed their outrage at Trump’s statements, including many who supported him in the 2016 election.

The reasons for this vary although it might be fair to say that with Trump telling people to boycott the NFL while objectively tarnishing the NFL brand, many owners are incensed that the head of state in the US, is using his office to essentially try to run their product and brand into the ground.

But Trump is doing more than ruining the NFL brand which had already faced competition from other sporting events like MMA which tends to attract a younger audience. Trump is actually tarnishing the brand of conservatism in the United States.

The US conservative movement is often united in a love for both the military and free speech during Democratic administrations, which are seen as being poor defenders of both the military and free speech.

But when a Republican and self-defined conservative is in charge, the conservative movement in America almost always divides itself between libertarians who value free speech and are often anti-war, versus pro-military conservatives who are happy to make flag burning a criminal offence.

When Donald Trump ran, he picked up on many libertarian themes including an anti-war message and a war on so-called ‘political correctness’ which is a war on censorship. Now though, he has chosen sides and it is not the libertarian side.

If Trump were a businessman, his statements about the NFL would be perfectly legitimate. He might even want to start a rival TFL (Trump Football League) where flags would wave high and mightily throughout the stadium during every game. This would be his right and people could vote with their pockets.

But as the President, he has used his shrewd marketing techniques to divide the country and also to divide his own conservative base. The NFL which was once as American as apple pie but without the politics, now stands for being ‘anti-military’ according to many non-libertarian Trump supporters.

Trump is in danger of forcing people to decide on their favourite sport plus free speech on one side and Trump plus the military on the other. The only caveat is that the NFL isn’t threatening the US military and nor are NFL players who take a knee. The US military is doing just fine, it is free speech that is in trouble.

In the longer term, many might realise that they cherish their free speech and their favourite game and don’t want to be lumped into a box by the President who is frankly acting like a good businessman, but a totally off the wall leader on the subject.

The Democrats and the terrorists of Antifa have attacked free speech from one side, now Trump is attacking it from another. The difference is that while Antifa and the Democrats offer nothing to conservative America, the NFL does and has done for decades. The First Amendment has offered a great deal to conservative America for far longer and in a much more meaningful way.

Voices of consistency are important and thus far, Ron Paul is once again consistently on the side of free speech whether it promotes the so-called left or the so-called right.

Before dismissing this, one has to remember that Ron Paul made being an anti-war conservative great again, something which helped pave the way for the popularity of Trump among conservatives long alienated by the big-war/big-government Republican party.

The fact is that, no one should be fired for using their peaceful right to free speech. This is true for those posting anti-Hillary memes and it is true for football players who take a knee.

Today, libertarians like Paul may well be paving the way for an anti-Trump backlash of conservatives who realise that if free speech shouldn’t get people “fired” for posting anti-Hillary memes, then it also shouldn’t get people fired for kneeling during the national anthem.

In attacking something as quintessentially American as football as well as attacking free speech, Donald Trump is of course exercising his own free speech, but much like no football game is complete without a penalty flag, Trump is guilty of unnecessary roughness, which is not a crime, but which is certainly a blunder.

When it comes to the First Amendment, every team needs a good defense.

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