President Donald Trump likes to use the bully pulpit to put black athletes and sports figures in their place. He seems most in his element when he’s right on the cusp of calling a young black man “uppity,” particularly when that young black man is a football player who has the temerity not to stand for the national anthem. Race-baiting black athletes is a home game for our president.
The problem Trump and his supporters had with the protests during “The Star-Spangled Banner” was never that people were politicizing the anthem; it was that the wrong people were politicizing the anthem. If it wasn’t obvious at the time, it should’ve been obvious Monday night, when Trump showed up on the field at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium ahead of college football’s national championship game and used the national anthem as an occasion to stage a political stunt. The stunt was that he stood, which is all he had to do to work the resentments of his base:
Trump’s attendance placed him squarely in a long tradition of presidents using sporting events for political ends. But that he chose this particular game, between the University of Alabama and University of Georgia, reveals something about Trump’s preferred terrain for waging his culture wars. College football country is Trump country, and the presence of Southeastern Conference teams from Alabama and Georgia ― states that both went resoundingly for him ― made it a safe bet he’d face little jeering from fans. It was in Alabama last year where Trump told rallygoers that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who protests during the anthem. You don’t have to travel a great psychic distance to get from “S-E-C! S-E-C!” to “Make America Great Again!”
Inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Trump had found his safest possible space ― an event at which he knew that he, and only he, would have the platform to use the national anthem as a political prop.
Much as in the NFL and NBA, the two biggest strongholds of Trump opposition in sports, black athletes make up a sizable majority of the players in major college football. And just as in those leagues, they operate in a labor system that overwhelmingly benefits white coaches, administrators and executives.
But unlike their pro counterparts, college athletes play for a pittance, and their system offers them none of the organizing power or rights that give professional athletes at least a little cover ― or legal recourse ― to challenge the political and racial status quo.
Trump and his supporters spent an entire NFL season insisting that athletes should refrain from politics and “stick to sports.” This was always a lie: Opposition to the protests has, this whole time, been about white people’s discomfort with black voices speaking up about systemic racism and police brutality. These are issues that large swaths of white America have no interest in hearing about, much less actually addressing.
College football’s national championship game was the best venue for a counterprotest. It was a stage from which Trump could send the message he wanted to send, while the magnitude of the event, and the racial and labor dynamics underlying the sport, ensured that the most likely voices of opposition would have no choice but to stick to sports, indeed. Before the game, a camera caught Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough yelling “Fuck Trump!” A voice of resistance, sure, but notice where he said it: in the bowels of the stadium, hidden from the crowd, hidden from a president who was conducting politics at the 50-yard line.