President Donald Trump has offered up a salute-the-troops message to the nation on Super Bowl Sunday, and once again he’s taken a shot — quieter this time, but unmistakable — at the NFL.
“As many Americans come together to watch the Super Bowl, Melania and I extend our greetings and appreciation for those who make occasions like this possible, particularly the brave men and women of our Armed Forces,” the White House said in a public statement on Trump’s behalf.
“Though many of our Nation’s service members are unable to be home with family and friends to enjoy this evening’s American tradition, they are always in our thoughts and prayers. We owe these heroes the greatest respect for defending our liberty and our American way of life. Their sacrifice is stitched into each star and every stripe of our Star-Spangled Banner. We hold them in our hearts and thank them for our freedom as we proudly stand for the National Anthem.
No players were observed, either by NBC’s cameras or by media in attendance, kneeling during the anthem prior to kickoff. Many players, including virtually all of the Patriots, stood with their hands on the shoulders of their teammates.
“We send our best wishes for an enjoyable Super Bowl Sunday. May God bless and protect our troops, and may he continue to bless the United States of America.”
Politics forced its way into the NFL this past season in a way unseen in the league’s history, first with players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, and then with President Trump himself repeatedly calling out the protesters and the league. Players and owners responded to Trump’s criticism by increasing the protests to the point that they encompassed virtually every team in the league.
The players who protested, beginning with Colin Kaepernick last season, have stressed that their protests aren’t aimed at disrespecting the military or the sacrifices made in the name of freedom. The players have tried to bring attention to what they see as systemic racial injustice, and making the protest during the anthem — an admittedly uncomfortable scene for much of the viewing public—is, in their eyes, the best way to raise awareness for their cause. Protests that come at comfortable times for the audience aren’t exactly protests that are taken seriously.
On the other hand, many fans of the NFL were disgusted by the timing of the protests, and they, like the president, made their feelings known throughout the fall. The NFL’s ratings have fallen substantially in the last two years, and while there are plenty of relevant and statistically valid reasons for that—expanding entertainment options, oversaturation of the marketplace, player injuries, weak performances by marquee teams, a general decline in television viewership across the board—the protests proved to be a PR crisis that the NFL could neither avoid nor contain.
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