- - Sunday, September 24, 2017

President Trump’s critics often call him a divisive figure, but he has served to unite two unlikely rivals — NFL owners and players.

The president took on both sides Friday night with his comments at an Alabama political rally, when, out of the blue — 13 months after it was first learned Colin Kaepernick was kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games — Trump harshly criticized players like Kaepernick and others who have followed his lead.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s FIRED,” Trump said. You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

AUDIO: Former MLB pitcher Ron Darling with Thom Loverro

Well, not that any owner was planning on doing that. But if they were, they won’t be now. Trump took what was a nice little manageable controversy for the league and turned into into a full-blown public relations inferno.

And he wasn’t done. The next step Trump took may have been the one that brought player and owner, league and union, together.

He trashed “The Shield.”

“Today if you hit too hard —15 yards,” Trump said. “Throw him out of the game. They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards. The referee gets on television — his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

“But do you know what’s hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on the television and you see those players taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”

The president of the United States told citizens to turn away from one of the most high-profile businesses in the country. For owners, at least, that was too much for them to ignore.

Trump’s comments set off a firestorm of criticism on social media from players —and resulted in a response Saturday morning from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell:

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

For the league, “lack of respect” is strong language.

The league found itself in lockstep with the union they are constantly at war with. “The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses,” said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in a statement. “Those opinions are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussions in our locker rooms and in board rooms. However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just “shut up and play.”

No one is going to “shut up” about this for a while.

NFL Sunday saw players kneel and lock arms en masse, though it is not clear what they were protesting about at this point — the Kaepernick message or the attack on football by the president.

Some of those players were joined by owners, such as Jacksonville’ Shad Khan, who stood locked in arm with his players on the sideline in London before the Jaguars-Baltimore Ravens game. Khan was one of seven NFL owners who donated money to Trump’s campaign and inauguration celebration.

Other owners joined in with statements expressing support for the players and disappointment in Trump’s comments. One of them was one of Trump’s biggest supporters, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, another Trump donor, who said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s comments.

You know what? Trump wasn’t speaking to NFL players or owners, and could care less what they think. Who knows what the motivation was for his comments. Some have suggested he holds a grudge against the league from his time as an owner in the United States Football League, when he tried to force a merger with the NFL with a lawsuit, or his rejected bid several years ago to buy the Buffalo Bills.

What his reason — his message most likely connected with many who feel the same way.

Several polls recently indicate the previously-sporadic Kaepernick national anthem kneeling protests as a reason for a decline in NFL ratings — including one by CBS, an NFL broadcast partner.

“We did research and it was relatively proprietary research, to be honest with you,” CBS president Sean McManus said during the NFL’s annual media day last month. “But I think if you look at some of the reasons why NFL viewership was down last year, that is a reason that’s mentioned by a fair amount of viewers. It is something they don’t find attractive or they find don’t compelling in coverage of the football game. How big a factor it was? I don’t really know. But it was one of the factors that I think perhaps led to the slight decrease in ratings last year.”

Trump’s comments may muddy the waters about what people are angry about and how angry they are. They may not be angry enough to want people to lose their jobs for refusing to stand for the national anthem — although NBA players can be punished for refusing to do so under their league regulations. It will be curious to see what happens when that league begins play.

But make no mistake about it — there is a segment of the population that is turned off by refusing to stand for the national anthem. And Trump joining them won’t likely politically damage him. Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush and an advisor to the NFL, said on Twitter, “Politically … it’s a winner for Trump.”

What the public sees are rich and famous athletes joined by richer owners protesting the American flag. For those protesting, it is far more complicated than that, and Sunday, they got a chance to deliver that message — even if many don’t want to hear it.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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