Bench-clearing brawl: Trump kicks sports stars, and they kick back

Admit it: Wouldn’t you rather have Donald Trump hurling verbal grenades at football and basketball stars than a guy with nuclear weapons?

I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the controversy. But Trump has an acute sense of when it’s in his interest to fight the culture war—and at least this is a war fought with words, not nukes.

On Friday afternoon, the hot political story in Washington was John McCain all but killing the Senate’s third and final attempt to redo ObamaCare. That would have been the buzziest Sunday show topic.

So Trump went in for the kick.

On Friday night in Alabama, the president called an audible. He went after Colin Kaepernick (though not be name), the quarterback who mounted a racial protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem and is now out of work.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!”

What makes this a divisive form of playing offense is that Trump seems to be saying that peaceful protest is not just unacceptable, but a justification for losing your job.

But politically, Trump is tapping into popular resentment, especially among his base, toward multi-millionaire football players who seem ungrateful and, by dissing the anthem, unpatriotic.

Shortly before I went on the air yesterday, a number of Baltimore and Jacksonville players took a knee during the anthem in an early-morning game in London. During the show, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they wouldn’t be on the field during the anthem. “Taking a knee” has now become the all-purpose symbol of protest against Trump—Stevie Wonder joined in—meaning non-sports celebrities can get a headline for doing so.

Trump, who owned a franchise in the defunct USFL, drew a penalty flag from Roger Goodell. The NFL commissioner said that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players.” Even Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a pal of the president, issued a statement expressing deep disappointment.

In his slam against the NBA, Trump announced that he was disinviting Steph Curry of the champion Golden State Warriors from visiting the White House. This happened after the all-star guard said he wasn’t sure he wanted to go. The Warriors said yesterday the whole team would blow off the White House visit.

And Trump’s targets have a big platform. Curry’s rival, LeBron James, hit back in a tweet actually calling the president “u bum,” drawing 1.4 million likes—and posted an accompanying video.

Trump’s detractors in the media quickly branded his attack as racial. “Trump’s Racial Crusade Against the Black Athlete,” a HuffPost headline blared. CNN’s Chris Cillizza said he is “playing with racial animus.”

The argument here is that Trump went after Kaepernick, Curry and ESPN host Jemele Hill, all African-Americans.

But it’s worth remembering that Hill started the fight by denouncing Trump as a “white supremacist,” while Curry drew first blood by saying he had doubts about visiting a White House occupied by Trump. The president clearly struck the first blow against NFL protestors like Kaepernick.

As usual, Trump uses over-the-top language (in this case SOB) to drive the debate. And the media love nothing more than a story that combines Donald Trump, politics, sports and race. It engages not just the political players but sports pages, sports radio, ESPN and every local outlet covering the local team.

I do think it’s sad that a ritual like a league champion visiting the White House has gotten swallowed up by politics. But then, that’s pretty much life in a polarized country where everyone’s always trying to score.