Not so long ago, there was a time when the sitting U.S. President wasn’t openly feuding with star players from the two largest professional sports leagues in the country. It was a quaint time, 24 hours ago, before Donald Trump suggested at an Alabama rally that kneeling NFL players should be fired for protesting during the national anthem. It was also a simpler time less than seven hours ago, before Trump uninvited the already uninterested Golden State Warriors to the White House.
But that world is in the past, gone for the foreseeable future, based on the blowback from LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeSean McCoy, Richard Sherman, the NFLPA, the NFL, and a growing list of frustrated athletes. For his part, Trump just doubled-down on Twitter, as is his style.
Regardless of your opinion on the player protests and Trump’s response, the ecosystem has dramatically changed in a short time. When NFL players take to the field tomorrow, it will different. And, as in any ecosystem, there will be adaptation.
If Trump’s goal was to engender more protests, he’ll succeed. More players will kneel tomorrow than every before. The protests may cross racial lines. They’ll likely be more pronounced and choreographed. It is not unreasonable to think they will extend into on-field action in some manner.
It’s tough to be confident ruling out anything, including a total team protest or a ceremonial kneeing of the football on a play. Unlikely yes, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see players take things to the next level in response to what is an escalation in tensions.
For some time now, there has been an idea that politically-driven player protests are part and parcel to the NFL’s dwindling popularity. This theory is not backed by a mountain of evidence and relies more on emotional and anecdotal data points.
But we’ll soon find out. Tomorrow will be the high-water mark for player protests, like it or not. How the public responds to them will be instructive in litigating this narrative.
Common sense dictates that ratings for tomorrow will be higher than usual. There is so much anticipation, excitement, or just plain curiosity over how things will play out. Judging the case on this number alone won’t be very useful.
It will be in the weeks to come in the wake of increased player protest that will tell the story. Will the fans who purport to be turned off by the actions turn away from the league in droves? Will their threats prove hollow?
If there’s a positive in all of this — and there very well may not be — it’s that we’ll find out for sure the impact of political football.