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Commentary: Trump rope-a-dopes the NFL and wins by KO

The color guard presents the American Flag as the bench of the Tennessee Titans remains empty during the national anthem before a game Sunday between the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

This is not an article about who is right and who is wrong. This is an article about who is winning and who is losing.

And as someone who is a) not a fan of Trump (to use mild understatement) and b) believes that there are real racial issues that need to be addressed in this country, it is nonetheless obvious that Trump has won this dumb NFL national anthem protest battle decisively in the hearts and minds of the middle-of-the-road voters who decide presidential elections.

Watching this bizarre spectacle unfold has been surreal, from a political perspective. The NFL's image has been tarnished a tad of late, but it is still the undisputed king of sports in America. Its ratings have slipped, but it is still the envy of every other sport and television property in the country, especially since live sports are the only programs that can't effectively be watched on DVR with commercials getting skipped, and advertisers know it. And even though people have complained about the league, by and large a huge portion of the country still loves their team and their players.

Trump, on the other hand, is widely unpopular. Thanks to a recent bump caused by favorable reaction to his handling of multiple hurricane disasters, Trump is back to hovering around the 40 percent approval range, which is disastrous for a president whose presidency is not yet nine months old. Trump started his presidency with a historically shallow public honeymoon and things almost immediately got worse.

It seems incredible that Trump could pick a fight with the NFL and come out ahead, but that's exactly what he's done. And he did it by rope-a-doping the NFL into engaging him on the one territory where the NFL was sure to get massacred: by poking at the festering sore opened by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year.

Trump knew that the country — even those who don't watch football — was simmering with resentment over the relatively small number of NFL players who were unwisely choosing to air their grievances during the national anthem. He understood that even those who might otherwise be sympathetic with the players were disgusted with the way they were choosing to protest, perceiving it as a slight against the entire country, including veterans, the active military, and first responders.

Some people (apparently including most of the NFL and its owners) do not understand the concept of the sacred. They do not understand that, to many people, how you say something is as important or more important than what you say. As one example, many people are perfectly fine with criticism of the Catholic church, but if you do it by dipping a crucifix in a vat of urine, even many non-Catholics will react with disgust and rejection. Failing to respect the national anthem and the flag is perceived by many as equivalent sacrilege. For those people, who probably comprise the vast majority of this country, there can be no willingness to consider the players' message as long as they are using the anthem and the flag as their method of protest.

He also knew that the NFL players who were not participating in the protest were still insanely protective of their teammates' right (and their own) to participate in a dumb, counterproductive protest. The average NFL player has been coddled since youth due to their freakish athletic ability and constantly treated like a Special Person who is entitled to do or say basically what they want. There is no surer way to goad a professional athlete into doing something than to suggest that they ought to not be allowed to play their sport if they do it.

Trump also knew that huge portions of the country was sick of the so-called thoughtful analysis and protest-feting that all of the sports media and virtually all the political media have engaged in since Kaepernick began this slow-motion debacle. And he knew about the latent jealousy and resentment many people have toward professional athletes, who get paid millions of dollars to live a life that everyone wants (or thinks they want).

And so, Trump exercised his talent to tap perfectly into the zeitgeist of the moment and say what a lot of America has been dying to hear for months: These pampered athletes ought to shut up and stand respectfully for the national anthem, or their teams should fine or suspend them.

Whether it's right or wrong for the president of the United States to be saying such things about private companies is completely beside the point. Trump's comments tapped perfectly into the raw emotions of middle America and gave them voice. They were both crude and perfect, just like David Ortiz famously booming "THIS IS OUR F***ING CITY" on live television from Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombing. The people who tsk'ed Ortiz for dropping an F-bomb in prime time were so irrelevant that Ortiz didn't even get fined by the FCC.

The same is true, from a political standpoint, for the critics of Trump's remarks. Yes, they were probably not proper, strictly speaking, from the president of the United States. No, the average person does not care.

The players and owners of the NFL, however, are decidedly NOT the average person. Trump could not have more perfectly aimed jabs at their sense of entitlement if he tried. Overnight, he somehow convinced almost the entire NFL to make themselves wildly unpopular in the name of responding to some tweets.

Think, for a moment, about the stupidity of the message sent by players who protested for the first time yesterday: The actual issues that Kaepernick protested weren't enough to make you join the protest, but some tweets by Trump were? Racial injustice is fine with you, but you simply can't support your country while the president is tweeting mean things about football players? As my friend, Caleb Howe wrote this morning:

Then there’s the NFL players who are taking a knee, and their supporters on social media. They are angry about President Trump tweeting about them. Why? This is what you wanted, isn’t it? National attention, a huge clash of points of view? What do liberals always pine for? Oh right, a “national conversation.” Well … you’ve got one.

Now that you have it, wouldn’t it be logical to talk about your issue? The one that was the reason Colin Kaepernick gave for starting this protest in the first place? I would think that. I would think “well, I’ve got the mic now, so I can talk about this thing that is the reason why I even did this.” But of course, that’s not what people are talking about, is it? Instead it’s all about Trump.

How dare Trump tweet? How dare he hate protests? How dare he think people should be fired?

What a wasted moment...

Trump gave this protest, on a silver platter, the chance to be about the exact thing the original participants wanted to talk about, the very reason for the protest in the first place, and in response the left has made it about protesting the fact that Trump is president. Or the fact that he tweeted. That’s just … dumb. ...

But we still aren’t actually talking about race. So the conversation you wanted that Trump gave you is being squandered on a conversation about Trump. In which case I guess it’s not about having trouble accepting it when you get what you want. It’s more like not knowing what to do with it. The proverbial dog catching the mail truck. Smooth.

This is exactly correct. And what's worse (for the players) is that they are definitely going to lose this fight with Trump, and it won't be close. Here in Nashville where I live, the Tennessee Titans suicidally decided as a team yesterday to not take the field for the anthem. Maybe that will play in Seattle (the Seahawks likewise refused to take the field) or to some lesser extent in Pittsburgh, but here the backlash has already begun. While driving my son to school on Interstate 65 this morning, I saw numerous Titans bumper stickers visibly defaced on cars. I also saw several new stickers I'd not seen before — the NFL logo with a red "no smoking" circle imposed over it.

It's as if Trump dared the entire NFL — from the ownership on down — to intentionally piss off America and make really sure everyone knew they were doing it just because they hate Trump, and the NFL obliged.

Regardless of who is right or who is wrong, it's not hard to predict how this particular scrum will end. Trump's approval rating will probably go up another 5 points in spite of the fact that the wall still isn't being built, the Obamacare repeal is circling the drain for the last time, and tax reform appears stalled. The NFL will probably suffer another ratings drop and more lagging ticket sales.

The NFL got rope-a-doped. And who knows if and when they'll get up from this beating.

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