President Donald Trump has long had two cherished American institutions standing beside him as he railed against athletes taking a knee during the national anthem: NASCAR and the NFL.
This week, they both started to walk away.
Bending to the cultural moment, NASCAR and the NFL in recent days reversed course on their approach to athletes protesting racial injustice. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he had been wrong for not listening to protesting players earlier and encouraged “all to speak out and peacefully protest.” Meanwhile, NASCAR relaxed rules barring kneeling during the national anthem and banned Confederate flags from its events. Within days, a NASCAR driver was circling a track in a race car emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter and a NASCAR official was taking a knee during prerace ceremonies.
The moves came in response to the protests that have erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died at the hands of the Minneapolis police. And they reflected shifting cultural attitudes — polls show an increasing percentage of the population view racism as a big problem in the country and the protests as a justified response.
Yet Trump stood his ground. He attacked Goodell, wondering whether the commissioner was telling players “that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the national anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” And he separately lashed out about a blossoming discussion about renaming military bases named after Confederate leaders.
The changing tenor from the two leagues could be pivotal for Trump, though. The president has long leaned on the front offices of each organization as he has publicly attacked athletes who took a knee during the national anthem, and privately pressured some team owners to change anthem rules. Trump has also relished NASCAR’s historically conservative, Southern fan base, praising it for being “patriotic Americans” and serving as the grand marshal of the Daytona 500 earlier this year. At rallies, he has praised racing fans for standing during the national anthem, and cursed at NFL players taking a knee.
“The shift is really going to put a damper on one of his favorite playbooks,” said LZ Granderson, a sports and culture columnist for the Los Angeles Times who has been covering the NFL and NASCAR reactions to the Floyd protests. “People who didn’t give a damn before won’t give a damn now, but the people who view themselves as nonracist, they just aren’t going for that rhetoric anymore.”
The debate over kneeling during the national anthem began in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the song in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. Trump fanned the flames of the issue, at one point calling for NFL owners to fire players for taking a knee.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field,” he said during a 2017 rally in Alabama.
Around the same time, Trump praised NASCAR for resisting kneeling protests.
“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans,” Trump wrote in a tweet in September 2017. “They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag — they said it loud and clear!”
The next year, the NFL banned players from kneeling on the field during the anthem, leading many players to simply stay near the locker room during the song. The decision put them in line with NASCAR.
Trump praised the decision, suggesting kneeling players “maybe shouldn’t be in the country” and taking credit for bringing attention to the issue before “the people pushed it forward.”
It was just one of several examples of how the president has used the NFL and NASCAR stances on protests to his political advantage, from taking a lap around the storied Daytona racetrack in his presidential limousine to using the NFL protests to rev up his fans at rallies. And the leagues’ refusal to allow overt kneeling gave Trump two allies as he fanned the culture war flames over the issue.
More broadly, the president has long aligned himself with the two leagues. Trump once tried to purchase an NFL team and counts some NFL owners, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, among his supporters and donors. Trump tapped New York Jets part-owner Woody Johnson as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. And he has praised the NASCAR-founding France family, some of whom are Trump donors, at political events.
But now, in the wake of a national movement, both organizations are promising to stand up for racial justice in a way that could challenge the president’s relationship with them. Instead of allies, the leagues may become yet another Trump attack target.
Goodell this week said he, and the league, were wrong. The NFL, he said, “believes black lives matter.”
NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sport must “do better” addressing racial injustice.
As part of that, NASCAR issued a statement banning the Confederate flag from all events, just hours before Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only top-tier black driver, made laps in a race car painted with “Black Lives Matter.”
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” the association said in a statement.
Former NASCAR CEO Brian France, who made a push to get rid of the flag in 2015, told POLITICO the organization “can’t be out of step and need to meet the moment.”
“In all sports, we have this big platform and we are speaking to millions of people every week, and have a devoted fan base and we need to lead,” France said.
The announcements come as Trump has gone the opposite way. He shut the door on a push to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders, tweeting that the names are part of a “Great American Heritage.” And he went after both Goodell and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who also recently apologized for saying that kneeling disrespects the flag.
“We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities,” Brees said.
Trump pounced on the apology, tweeting that Brees “should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag.”
The president’s obstinance in the midst of a racially heated moment has been compared with his response to the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Va., when Trump equated white nationalists with those protesting the removal of Confederate statues.
This time around, some of the president’s advisers have urged him to take a less combative tone. Instead, he has leaned into “law-and-order” rhetoric and stuck by most of his previous stances. Trump has not, however, commented on NASCAR’s ban of Confederate flags.
An administration official referred to Trump’s 2015 comments about the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. “I would take it down, yes,” Trump said when asked about then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision. “I think they should put it in a museum and respect whatever it is you have to respect.”
Andrew Giuliani, a special assistant to the president who’s worked as a White House liaison to sports programs, said “there’s been no president since [Abraham] Lincoln who’s done more for the black and Hispanic communities in the United States than President Trump. At the same time, he has been consistent in his belief that we should stand proud for our great American flag and asks American citizens to kneel only for God.”
The NFL is “taking an issue that most people agree with — peacefully protesting racial disparities and racial injustice — and then they’re reembracing a type of that protest or debate [kneeling] … that a lot of people that don’t think people should do,” said another administration official.
But the issue remains divisive. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Americans think it is OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.
Meanwhile, 44 percent of NASCAR fans said race attendees should be allowed to express themselves however they want, including by displaying the Confederate flag, according to a Morning Consult poll.
The president, according to an official, is expected to continue to stump against kneeling during the anthem, believing it works to his political advantage.
“Kneeling during the national anthem is a slap in the face to the men and women of the United States military who defend our freedoms, many of whom make the ultimate sacrifice,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
Still, the question remains whether more than Trump’s die-hard supporters will stick with him.
“He completely missed the boat,” said Rick Reilly, a former Sports Illustrated and ESPN contributor and the author of “Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.”
“It’s like somehow his cable that comes into the White House is set in 1962, he’s so far behind,” Reilly added. “This is a watershed moment and he’s lost. It’s like your grandpa who thinks Joe DiMaggio is still playing.”