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ANALYSIS

Trump’s fight with NFL takes culture war to perilous level

Chargers players locked arms Sunday as the national anthem played before their game against the Chiefs.
Chargers players locked arms Sunday as the national anthem played before their game against the Chiefs.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump has flirted with many culture wars before. This weekend, he may have set off a full-fledged one with lasting implications.

On Friday night, Trump said NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. Then Saturday, he disinvited the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, from a White House visit because superstar Stephen Curry said that the team should skip it in protest of Trump.

All this comes shortly after the White House suggested that ESPN host Jemele Hill should be fired for calling Trump a ‘‘white supremacist.’’

All three events pit Trump against black sports figures whose political statements he believes are out of bounds or unpatriotic. And the situation seems to be reaching a tipping point.

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The NFL and players from both the NFL and the NBA have fought back with statements offering varying degrees of criticism of the president. More than 130 NFL players sat, knelt, or raised their fists as the anthem was played at games Sunday, and other players stood with their arms locked in solidarity.

Trump was back at it Sunday, suggesting on Twitter that fans should boycott the NFL: ‘‘If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!’’

The question from here is what happens on the field and in the stands going forward. The issue could test the resolve of everyone involved, not just on issues of race and free speech, but also economically.

It’s not difficult to see more NFL players joining what Colin Kaepernick started by kneeling during the anthem — not to protest police treatment of African-Americans, as Kaepernick did, but to protest Trump and assert their First Amendment rights.

And the movement is already expanding beyond football. On Saturday night, Oakland Athletics player Bruce Maxwell became the first player in Major League Baseball to kneel during the anthem.

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If athletes continue to kneel in large numbers, Trump will push the boycott and try to pressure owners economically. If the owners don’t really pay a price or if Trump backs off, the president will look weak. If players stop kneeling (which seems very unlikely) or the owners distance themselves from these protests, Trump will look like he won.

Trump’s aides supported him Sunday and asserted that most Americans are behind him on respect for the flag, but political and public backing for his effort to punish players is far shakier.

On ABC’s ‘‘This Week,’’ Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin forcefully defended Trump’s comments, saying that NFL owners should vote on new rules prohibiting the practice.

‘‘This is about respect for the military, the first responders,’’ Mnuchin said. He also declined to criticize the coarse language Trump used, saying, ‘‘I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.’’

Of the players, Mnuchin said: ‘‘They have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job.’’

Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, said on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press’’ that Trump is standing with the ‘‘vast majority’’ of Americans who believe the flag ‘‘should be respected.’’ He added that Trump plans to take more action to improve race relations. ‘‘The president believes it is his role to improve race relations,’’ Short said.

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But Republican lawmakers were less enthusiastic about the president’s strategy for expressing his disagreement with players. Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, said Sunday that the president should be focused on issues like the North Korean crisis and the debate over health care.

The winner of this dispute is not a foregone conclusion.

Polls have suggested rather limited backlash against the league for the anthem protests thus far. In a J.D. Power survey from July, just 3 percent of NFL fans said that they were watching less football and that it was because of the protests.

Among the relatively few fans who said they were watching less football (10 percent of all fans), the protests were the No. 1 reason offered, but this was not a massive group of fans.

Whatever the reasons, the NFL saw viewership drop last season, and there are some signs of attendance problems early this year.

And while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement criticizing the president’s comments drew Trump’s ire, plenty on the left have criticized the commissioner as not going far enough to defend the anthem protests — a reflection of the financial danger he sees in this whole controversy.

Even in his statement Saturday, Goodell didn’t weigh in on whether he thinks the protests are in bounds.

Before the president told his devoted base to boycott, the protests had been limited to a few players on a few teams.

But things are escalating, and both sides seem to be encouraging that escalation. If enough fans decide that their loyalty to their political team is more important than their loyalty to their NFL team, this could be much bigger than just a war of words over a September weekend.

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