Taking a knee: Who gets hurt in an NFL boycott, Trump or the league?
The White House versus the NFL could be the next great sports rivalry after President Donald Trump spent the weekend hammering the National Football League for allowing players to protest the national anthem.
Trump kicked off the weekend with a campaign speech in Alabama on Friday, where he laid into the National Football League saying the players who took a knee in protest of social and racial injustice should be fired.
"Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b**** off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!'" Trump told an audience of supporters.
The president went on to encourage football fans to boycott the NFL to stop the on-field activism and argued that viewership was already down because of the national anthem protests.
Given the strength of the presidential bully pulpit and the superhero appeal of professional athletes, there's an open debate about who gets hurt the most in the skirmish, Donald Trump or the NFL.
WOULD A BOYCOTT HURT THE NFL?
Throughout the weekend, Trump repeated his message more than once, saying team owners should fire or suspend players who don't stand for the anthem and if they don't, fans should consider boycotting.
In fact, the majority of Trump's tweets over the weekend through Monday morning (16 of 30) were related to sports. He tweeted about basketball, hockey and even NASCAR, which has had record low viewership for more than ten years.
The White House defended the president's tweets saying the statements weren't about race or sports, but about "honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem, and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it."
Even if Trump's suggested boycott gains support, it would not the first protest the league has seen.
The NFL was hit from both sides during the 2016 season after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kicked off the national anthem controversy by taking a knee during the preseason to protest police brutality against the African American community.
On one side, fans said they would not to support the league until Kaepernick got signed to a new team. On the other, fans saw Kaepernick's demonstration as a sign of disrespect and wanted the NFL to crack down on the protests.
"I think you're already seeing an effect," said Mike McCarthy, Sporting News reporter and Rutgers adjunct professor, said of the protests.
"TV ratings, which are supposed to be impregnable, dropped 8 percent last year," he explained, "This year, again, ratings are down."
There are many explanations as to why the numbers appear to be on the decline. An August J.D. Power survey on fan satisfaction found that national anthem protests were a factor among at least a quarter of those who reported tuning in to the game less often.
According to Sports Media Watch, the ratings drop is negligible and the numbers fail to account for online streaming, Thursday night games and the decline in viewership across all professional sports.
However, there is clearly money to be made on either side of the debate. As of Monday afternoon, jersey sales soared for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, who was the only member of his team to take the field and stand for the anthem on Sunday.
Dr. Harry Edwards, sports sociologist at UC Berkeley, who also worked as a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, anticipates President Trump will take a worse hit than the players or the NFL in the latest skirmish.
"You cannot attack the cultural icons of a social system and not expect there to be some tremendous price to pay," Edwards said. "What he has done in attacking ... the athletes who are protesting and exercising their First Amendment rights, is to essentially lose the battle, the struggle for hearts and minds in American culture, particularly among the young people."
Even more significant, Trump also forced team owners and managers, a number of whom supported his candidacy, into an impossible position.
TEAM OWNERS THROW A PENALTY FLAG, CALL TRUMP 'DIVISIVE'
By raising the profile of the national anthem protests, Trump made it impossible for some of his high-profile 2016 donors to continue to publicly support him, Edwards said.
"Trump threw the owners under the bus because he compelled them to side with the players, where they would have preferred to simply stay in the background and stay neutral," he explained.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell abandoned his previous position that "there is a time and place" for players to protest, and on Sunday evening stood fully behind the players and their decision to engage in on-field activism.
"The way we reacted today, and this weekend, made me proud," Goodell told Sports Illustrated. "I'm proud of our league."
During the last election, a handful of NFL team owners and managers pitched in millions of dollars to the Trump campaign. Trump called attention to during his Alabama rally on Friday boasting that "many" of the owners "are friends of mine."
He insisted they would be "the most popular person in this country" if they fired the players who took a knee for the national anthem.
Apparently, "many" of the owners felt differently and chose to back their players against the president's remarks, which were decried almost universally as "divisive."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft who donated $1 million to Trump's campaign and even gave Trump a Super Bowl ring around the same time the president hosted the 2017 champions at the White House.
On Saturday, Kraft, a long-time friend of the president, issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President."
Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, called the president's comments "divisive and counterproductive" to what the country needs. McNair donated $2 million to the pro-Trump Great America PAC and also contributed to Trump's inaugural committee.
Shad Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was also among the million-dollar inauguration donors. On Sunday, Khan denounced the president's remarks "make it harder" to work towards the goals of embracing diversity. The Pakistan-born team CEO initially broke with Trump on the travel ban.
The New York Jets management was largely silent on Sunday and every player stood for the anthem. This is not a complete surprise since the current owner, Woody Johnson, was just confirmed to be U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom in August. Johnson raised substantial cash for the Trump campaign and donated $1 million to his inaugural committee.
EXPERTS SAY TRUMP'S ADVICE TO FIRE PLAYERS IS A BAD PLAY
According to Edwards, the team owners were left with little choice in throwing their support behind their players. The minute management sided with Trump, calling protesting players SOBs (a statement about their mothers), that owner "has signed his last free agent football player, especially black free agent."
"The next thing you know, this is a guy who can't hold his team together ... and ends up having to sell his team."
Technically, the National Football League could put a lid on the protests and implement a rule saying players who refuse to stand for the national anthem can be suspended or punished in other ways.
The NFL is a private organization and oftentimes players sign contracts that give owners significant leeway to fire them based on behavior they consider unbecoming, either on or off the field.
NFL players have the celebrity status, the money and the public forum to call attention to major social issues. But like many other employees, they could face repercussions for expressing their political views if it threatens the company's reputation or its bottom line.
As far as whether NFL management should lay down the law and curb players' social activism on the field, McCarthy warned such a move would cause an "explosion."
"You might see a strike by players. You might see whole teams sitting out games. You might see players responding in a variety of ways, and the media would clearly be on their side," he said.
For now, it is only week three of the 2017 season and McCarthy says the story is just going to get "bigger and better." The president's close attention to the subject and his series of statements on the issue over the weekend prove that he believes it's an effective campaign issue.