How Trump Lost Sports as a Political Strategy

Doug Sosnik, the political director for Clinton, described Trump in an email as a verbal “day trader” who, once his lines begin to fall flat, “moves on to the next shiny object that will arouse his supporters.”

What Trump misunderstood about players kneeling for the anthem, Sosnik said, is that most Americans believe strongly in the First Amendment, and Floyd’s death made it “hard for anyone not to view the protests as anything but an appropriate reaction to such outrageous behavior.”

Trump had sparred with the N.F.L. for decades. In the 1980s, as a franchise owner in the upstart United States Football League, he led a movement to file an antitrust suit against the N.F.L., only to be left embarrassed by a reward of $3 in damages.

At a political rally in September 2017, Trump denounced any player who would kneel for the anthem, imploring N.F.L. team owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” But by June 2020, he reacted to a turbulent 48-hour period in the N.F.L. with the social media equivalent of taking his ball and going home, having lost his ability to bully the country’s most popular sports league.

On June 3, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, at a time when many Black athletes were demanding racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees essentially sided with Trump by saying, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”

His remarks seemed tone deaf to many and drew lacerating responses from Black teammates and others around the N.F.L., a league where three-quarters of the players are African-American. A day later, Brees apologized in an Instagram post, saying his comments were “insensitive and completely missed the mark.” He asked for forgiveness in what seemed to be a mix of self-preservation and reflection.

On June 5, Trump posted on Twitter that he was a “big fan” of Brees, but that the quarterback should not have rescinded his original stance. “NO KNEELING!” Trump tweeted.