Trump’s national anthem Twitter feud with the NFL changed the game

Originally published February 4, 2018

When the Super Bowl begins on Sunday, expect the normal pomp and circumstance we’ve seen for the past half century. Excited fans, over-the-top commentary and wacky commercials will be on display. And it all will start with the national anthem.

There will also be the unseen presence of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL football player who took center stage in the debate about the line between patriotism and protest.

A year and a half ago, Kaepernick was a better-than-average quarterback. A promising second-round draft pick, he began his career with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. In the following years, he helped lead the team to play in the Super Bowl and then again in the playoffs.

But it’s the other things he did that will change the way he’s remembered. Beginning in late 2016, he started an on-field protest to draw attention to police violence and shootings. He did this by either sitting or kneeling, rather than standing, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.

That act of quiet defiance made him into one of the men who changed the culture of football. Well, that and a Twitter feud President Donald Trump began with the league.

“It originated as a protest against police brutality, everyone was clear on that,” said Glenda Gilmore, a US history professor at Yale University.

The protests vaulted Kaepernick to being the fourth-most talked-about athlete in the world last year, according to Twitter data. But as people’s Twitter timelines filled with the more than 3.8 million tweets referencing the hashtags #takeaknee and #taketheknee after Trump weighed in, Kaepernick’s message got muddied.

Trump changed the debate into a discussion about respect for the flag and veterans and whether players for the NFL have the right to protest. Entire teams protested in response.

“What’s astonishing to me as a person, but not astonishing as a historian, is the fight over the narrative,” Gilmore said.

Sports has always had an element of politics in it. There’s the Olympics, which provoked a boycott movement when they were held in Nazi Germany in 1936 and which a number of countries, including the US, did boycott in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1968, the Olympics became a platform for protest when two sprinters raised their fists in the air as the national anthem was played. The boxing great Muhammad Ali failed to show up for the draft for the Vietnam War, saying he was a conscientious objector.

What made these protests different, Gilmore said, was the Twitter effect. Hashtags like #standforouranthem, #boycottnfl and #takeaknee, became an easy way for Americans and propaganda bots to pick a side and dig in.

Teams were divided. Players, coaches and owners were inundated with questions about where they stood. And once they spoke out, some fans responded quickly on social media.

The backlash was intense. “Social media is an opportunity for the average person to voice things they may be saying in other settings, like their private homes, or at work or among friends,” said Charles Ross, the director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. “There’s no filter.”

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