TIME

TRUMP’S OFFENSIVE PLAYBOOK

A deliberately provocative President picks his latest fight over free speech in sports
Trump walks toward Air Force One in New Jersey on Sept. 22, hours before calling out NFL players at a political rally in Huntsville, Ala.

THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL MAN picked a busy week to go to war with America’s most popular sport. Donald Trump was navigating a nuclear standoff with North Korea when he touched down in Alabama for a political rally on Sept. 22. In Puerto Rico, millions of Americans were without water or electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria. A plan to revamp the nation’s health care system faced a pivotal hurdle in the Senate.

But the President had another matter on his mind: the squad of football players who had protested racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling, raising their fists or locking their arms during the national anthem. “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 asked the crowd of supporters in Huntsville.

Trump sprays outrage like a comedian testing material, and the thunderous applause told the President he had struck gold. So he pressed the attack. Some two dozen times over the next five days, he questioned the protesters’ patriotism and labeled them “privileged” millionaires who lacked respect or gratitude.

It was a remarkable thing for a President to devote so much energy to attacking athletes for peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. But the spat over sports wasn’t just a diversion but a move straight from Trump’s political playbook. Confronted with crises, he creates new ones, picking fights that stir his supporters and outrage his opponents. In this case, he spotted a wedge issue that pits his rural, conservative white base against both wealthy black athletes and liberal elites who scold the NFL for everything from racist team logos to soft-pedaling the risks of head trauma. White House advisers were pleased that the President had found a way to turn Colin Kaepernick—the unemployed quarterback who pioneered the kneeling protest—into the new “Crooked Hillary.”

But quite apart from whether North Korea or Puerto Rico was a better focus of his attention, why run the risk of blowback by taking on one of the few American institutions that appeals across party lines, state lines, class and color lines? For this President, the words usually matter less than the music. The point was not that he was attacking the actions

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