Historians may well view NFL row as moment when base turned against Donald Trump
American football is sport's best copy of American life: a struggle for territory and power. So we might have guessed it would become a battleground for the Trump presidency, which has hijacked a protest about police brutality and sold it back to the nation as an attack on the US military and the flag.
The demonic strategist in Trump's head spotted an opportunity when Colin Kaepernick's decision to drop to one knee for the 'Star-Spangled Banner' began to catch on as a means of drawing attention to the shooting by police of unarmed black Americans. The nature of the protest, which stirred the country's deepest sensitivities about the stars and stripes, allowed the White House to bury the original grievance under a tide of nationalistic and racially framed indignation.
As Americans discuss the weekend's mass NFL protest with a fervour striking even by the standards of Trump's volcanic reign, the most pressing need was to dig out those founding objections from the sludge of the president's tirades, and perhaps to find new ways to protest beyond going down on knee, to outflank the hostile forces of Trump's America.
And boy, are those forces hostile. A colleague in the US reports that during one hour of listening to a Boston radio station he heard the protesting NFL players called "thugs, morons, idiots and dummies". Trump of course called every one of them a "son of a bitch" who should be hauled off the field and fired. He said it in Huntsville, Alabama, in the same deep south where he claimed there were some "fine people" at a Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
One of the president's religious advisers, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, brought the ghosts of the old South flooding back. Jeffress said: "They [the NFL players] live in a country where they're not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they're also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking a knee like they would be if they were in North Korea." When Stevie Wonder went down on one knee before a concert in Central Park, Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted that he was "another ungrateful black multi-millionaire".
But not getting "shot in the head" is largely what this is about.
All serious American historians agree that race is the central unresolved issue of America's development as a nation. The end of the civil war brought a victory for one side, but not a settlement. Resentment in the southern states continued to fester and gave rise to the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, while segregation endured until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Inequality, the mass incarceration of young black males, and police shootings, are seen by many as the next episode in that national story, and explain the feelings that found an outlet through Kaepernick and the NFL. Black males aged 15-34 are nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans.
As the debate raged after this weekend's protests, Kaepernick's team-mate, Eric Reid, told the 'New York Times' why he became involved.
"In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police," Reid wrote. "The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown, Baton Rouge.
"This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn't know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible. A few weeks later, during pre-season, my team-mate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
"I have too often seen our efforts belittled with statements like 'He [the victim of a shooting] should have listened to the officer,' after watching an unarmed black person get shot, or 'There is no such thing as white privilege' and 'Racism ended years ago.' We know that racism and white privilege are very much alive today."
Last year, Trump told Kaepernick to "find a country that works better for him." He also claims his son-of-a-bitch remark had "nothing do to with race". Kaepernick, meanwhile also needs to find a job, because NFL franchises have turned their back on him. There are no black owners of the 32 NFL teams, and only one in the NBA (Michael Jordan). Yet even here the battle lines are confused, with NFL owners supporting their players over the White House. Some had even donated to Trump's inauguration committee.
In one week, a private protest has flared into a debate about America's purpose and meaning under Trump, with Steve Kerr, the head coach of basketball's Golden State Warriors, declaring: "Nationalists are saying, 'You're disrespecting our flag.' Well, you know what else is disrespectful to our flag? Racism."
Jim Caldwell, coach of the NFL's Detroit Lions, also defended the players: "There are no S.O.B.s in this league. These are men that work hard, of integrity, they're involved in our communities. They're fathers, they're brothers, and their mothers aren't what [Trump] said they were. And our guys believe in unity, civility, and also the First Amendment rights to peaceful expression and freedom of speech."
The Trump presidency is being acted out on many battlefields - North Korea, his relationship with Russia - but historians may yet trace its end in part to the time he set out to stigmatise athletes whose prime objective was to stop others from their communities being shot by police officers who are routinely excused by the justice system. By whipping up his own constituency, on the gridiron field, Trump is uniting the saner, more compassionate America he seeks to destroy. (© Daily Telegraph London)