Opinion: Trump’s latest criticism of NFL protests appears to be falling on deaf ears
It looks as if President Donald Trump is going to have to find himself a new dog whistle.
His one for protests by NFL players seems to have lost its reach.
That Trump turned his itchy Twitter finger on the NFL and its players multiple times in the last 10 days is hardly a surprise. With his already low approval ratings plummeting further and most of the country unimpressed with how he’s handled the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest following George Floyd’s death, he is desperate for anything to rally his base and maybe win back a few of the MAGA defectors.
What is surprising is how little reaction there’s been for one of Trump’s old standbys. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell essentially shrugged when he was asked about it on ESPN’s panel on the return of sports Monday night. There’s been no public uproar, no widespread calls for a boycott of the NFL.
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WHY NOW? Roger Goodell's support for Colin Kaepernick is a trendy matter of convenience
President Donald Trump's criticism of NFL protests doesn't seem to be working anymore. (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)
Granted, there are more pressing issues right now, and the NFL isn’t scheduled to start for almost three months.
But the indifference is also a reflection of a perceptible shift in American attitudes.
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted June 9 and 10 found that public support for Black Lives Matter has more than doubled in the last four years, with 57 percent of Americans now saying they have a favorable view of the movement. Sixty percent said racism is “built into American society,” and the same percentage said the deaths of Black and brown people are signs of a broader problem, rather than isolated incidents.
Even more telling, the poll found that a majority of Americans – 52 percent – believe it’s “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.” In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee, only 28 percent of Americans deemed his protests appropriate.
“There’s some chunk of Trump diehards who are going to stick with him on the NFL and police and everything else no matter what. (But) that is absolutely not a majority” of the population, said David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in social movements.
“I don’t think Americans are going to turn off their TV and stop watching football,” Meyer added. “And I don’t think the owners are going to crack down on Goodell when they see him trying to protect their business right now.”
That Kaepernick and the players who joined him in protesting would end up on the right side of history was never in doubt. The only question was how long it would take society to catch up.
That horrifying video of Floyd pleading for his life while a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, as well as the avoidable deaths of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, made the parallels with Kaepernick’s protests impossible to ignore. Despite the brays of Trump and others who distorted Kaepernick’s method to drown out his message, the player protests were never about the flag, the anthem or the military.
They were a plea for equality and humanity, a call for the country to finally address the systemic racism that rigs every part of our system against Black and brown people. And America finally gets that.
“Something about the power of the video of George Floyd’s killing has really shifted the perception of the legitimacy of the claims by Colin Kaepernick or, more broadly, the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Omar Wasow, a political scientist at Princeton. “That’s something that is really unjust, and that’s worthy of attention.”
Wasow said it’s possible support will ebb as the nationwide protests end and the country turns its attention to something else. But he noted the white athletes who have joined the cause, many of whom have apologized for not understanding the reasons for the original protests and for failing until now to recognize their privilege, is another sign of a cultural shift.
Baker Mayfield has said he “absolutely” will kneel this season, while J.J. Watt clapped back at a fan who suggested the protests disrespected the flag. Even Drew Brees has come around, saying, “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
“Popular opinion responds to signals from elites like (athletes), but also like the NFL itself. So if Roger Goodell is saying, `We made a mistake,’ that may trickle down to some of the NFL fan base, too, changing the dynamics,” Wasow said.
“The fact we’re seeing more NFL players, some of them white, saying, `I’m going to be kneeling,’ is also a strong signal to NFL fans and the larger national audience of the legitimacy of this protest movement.”
Even though Trump had NFL owners cowering, the impact of his previous criticism was overblown. Yes, TV ratings were down in 2016 and 2017. But so were pretty much everyone's as cord cutting picked up speed, and ratings have risen again in each of the last two seasons.
The NFL also continues to print money, distributing a whopping $8.8 billion in national revenue to teams in 2018, an 8.6 percent increase from the previous year.
Trump will no doubt go after the NFL again, particularly as Election Day nears. But in this pivotal time in American history, the calls for change are drowning out the dog whistles.
The calls for change are drowning out the dog whistles. Even those by the president.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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