epresentative Todd Rokita was under attack. Facing two challengers in Indiana’s GOP Senate primary, Rokita was eager to burnish his conservative bona fides by aligning himself with President Donald Trump, who had carried the state by 19 percentage points. So Rokita produced an ad that naturally featured standard Democratic punching bags Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the first frame. But the next boogeyman that appeared was not Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer (they appeared later). Instead, it was a clip of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. As the camera zoomed in for a close-up of the quarterback’s face, the voiceover intoned: “The liberal elites disrespect our flag.”
In the end, Rokita lost the primary in Indiana last week to businessman Mike Braun, but it wasn’t because he decided to make an issue of a protest that came to define the NFL last season. In fact, two days after his defeat, the president himself came to Indiana for a campaign rally at which he made sure to deliver one of his most reliable applause lines: “We stand for our national anthem at all times.” The crowd roared.
Rokita is just one of a handful of Republican candidates across the country, from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, who have incorporated the anti-player protest sentiment into their campaigns. While the protests themselves have slipped over the past six months from the front page back inside the sports section, the complaint about spoiled, rich athletes—a complaint the Trump administration has gleefully stoked time and again—has become a durable meme in the culture war, as powerful a symbol as the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era.
One of the candidates who has featured the anti-NFL player message most prominently is Tennessee Congresswoman Diane Black, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the state’s race for governor. On Super Bowl Sunday, Black aired her own campaign ad in which she stood in front of the camera and said, “It’s too bad the league doesn’t respect the patriotism of our national anthem.” A month later, she followed up by publishing a 700-word op-ed on Outkick the Coverage, a website run by sports talk firebrand and conservative darling Clay Travis, declaring that she would give up her season tickets for the coming season. “It has been something that has been a conversational piece as I travel throughout the state,” Black told me. “People are saying thank you for standing up.”
Black and Rokita have tapped into an emotional and polarizing national argument that began when Kaepernick and other NFL players knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence. In September, at a campaign rally for Alabama Senate candidate Luther Strange, Trump famously called the players “sons of bitches,” recasting the protests from an exercise of free speech into an insult to patriotism and disrespect to the military. Republicans took his cue. Last year, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie sent out a mailer attacking the players. In Alabama, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called the protests “illegal.”
The NFL has done its best to quash the protests, worried about the bad publicity and alienating conservative fans, of which the league has many. By October last year, the NFL was one of the most divisive brands in the country and had a net favorability of negative 24 among Trump voters. Kaepernick, despite respectable stats, went unsigned last year and has since filed a collusion lawsuit against the league. His fellow protester, safety Eric Reid, only 26 years old and a former Pro Bowler, remains without a team this off-season and has filed his own suit. Indeed, the message from the league has been unmistakable (if not illegal): Protesting will affect your job prospects.
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But if the league wants to turn the page, there are Republicans still eager to talk about the protests. No one I spoke to believes it’s an election-swinging issue, but it has still become a powerful signal to voters for politicians looking to flex their cultural conservative credentials: pro-flag and anti-Black Lives Matter. “It makes sense because politics follows the culture,” said former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who has worked with athletes and pro teams. “Cultural issues tend to reverberate deeper and be remembered by voters more than policy matters like tax cuts and health care.”
And it’s likely we haven’t heard the last of it as campaign season ratchets up. The Trump administration has made the kneelers a pet issue. Mike Pence made a show of walking out of an Indianapolis Colts game last year—a protest of the protest—and Trump relishes plumbing the cultural fissures. A former Trump White House adviser put it to me this way: “Colin Kaepernick probably has a higher name ID than Nancy Pelosi. He’s a better foil than Pelosi because more people know who he is.”
No one has tested that theory with more gusto than Black. A die-hard Tennessee Titans fan, she also hails from a proud military family—her father fought in World War II, her husband was a Marine and her son is a veteran of the Gulf War. Watching players kneel during the anthem last year was viscerally upsetting, she told me. She had her season tickets for years but didn’t attend a single game last year. “We didn’t give our tickets to anyone,” she said. “We wanted the seats to be empty to send a message to the NFL.” (No Titans players kneeled, though one remained in the locker room during the anthem for much of the season.) Black told me that when the Titans sent her the paperwork to renew her season tickets this off-season, they included a massive gift box. “Usually they send a little koozie,” she said. “But this year it was filled with cups and scarves and all kinds of goodies. We sent it back.”
Black likes to couch her decision in personal terms, not political. But it has certainly become part of her political identity She told me that she hasn’t done any polling on the issue, though a number of polls last year—CBS, HuffPost and CNN, among them—found a majority of respondents opposed the protests rather than supported them. Respondents were particularly divided along racial lines, with whites opposed to the protests and blacks supporting them.
Anecdotally, there is little doubt that the issue energizes Republicans. If you go back to Trump’s speech when he first attacked the players, he was giving a somewhat meandering address. As soon as he mentioned the kneelers, the crowd went wild. I saw the same phenomenon in action when I attended the annual state convention for the Arizona Republican Party earlier this year in Phoenix. Kelli Ward, locked in a primary fight in the race for Senate with former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and U.S. Representative Martha McSally, delivered the pledge of allegiance to kick off the meeting. “People in this room always stand for the pledge!” she cried. The crowd of a few hundred Republicans erupted in applause.
The issue is also another way to align yourself with Trump. But Howie Morgan, a conservative campaign consultant based in the Gulf Coast who has worked for Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry, told me that there was a larger cultural appeal that goes beyond the president. “If you want to show voters that you support the military and veterans, it works,” he said. “Just like you raffle off a gun to show you’re strong on guns.” He added that when his clients post anything about the protests to social media, it spreads like wildfire.
Fleischer said the kneelers could be an especially potent campaign issue for a Republican able to find a Democratic opponent who voiced support for them. He also said that a campaign commercial highlighting Alejandro Villanueva—the offensive lineman who, before a game last season, was the only member of the Pittsburgh Steelers to walk out of the tunnel during the playing of the national anthem (his teammates remained just inside the tunnel)—could be more effective than any attacks. “It’s more of an uplifting message,” he said.
For some historical context, I called Jonathan Eig, the author of Ali: A Life, a biography of the boxer published last year. Eig told me there were plenty of politicians who spoke out against Ali, the most outspoken political athlete of the 20th century, after he refused deployment to the Vietnam War. “Ali will fight anyone but the Vietcong,” Illinois Congressman Robert H. Michel once said. And when Governor Ronald Reagan denied Ali a California boxing license in 1970, he quipped, “That draft dodger will never fight in my state.” (Ali later endorsed Reagan for president.) Eig noted, though, that the stakes were different with Ali. “There were real political consequences, like more conscientious objectors to the war,” he said. “With Kaepernick, there’s no real political issue. It’s just pandering to your base.”
Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN and the author of a new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, went further. “This is no different than Willie Horton,” he said. “It’s the soft on crime message. Before, they used felons to get out the vote; now they use ballplayers.”
When I asked Black about the racial undertones Bryant noted, she didn’t address the question directly, but reiterated how personal the issue was to her. “I just don’t believe that’s the venue,” she said of the protests. “I’m paying to be entertained. I’m not paying to be affronted. Unless you’ve had a husband or a son or someone in the military where you lay awake at night knowing they’re in harm’s way, I don’t think they can understand.”
Recently, the New York Times published an audio recording of a meeting between NFL players and owners at the height of the controversy last year. The league’s fear of Trump was painfully obvious. “The problem we have is, we have a president who will use [the kneeling] as fodder to do his mission,” said New England Patriots owner—and Trump friend—Robert Kraft. While pressing the players to abandon the protests, owners pledged $100 million to social justice causes. The kneeling tapered off; by the end of the season, the protests were an afterthought.
With the new season three months away—and Kaepernick and Reid jobless—it is difficult to imagine the players returning to their protest. But Black told me she could see the protests coming up in a debate in Nashville. “I have very patriotic constituents,” she said. Added Morgan, “There’s no doubt Republicans are still pissed off about it.”