President Donald Trump has long had two cherished American institutions standing beside him as he railed against athletes taking a knee during the national anthem: NASCAR and the NFL.
This week, they both started to walk away.
Bending to the cultural moment, NASCAR and the NFL in recent days reversed course on their approach to athletes protesting racial injustice. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he had been wrong for not listening to protesting players earlier and encouraged “all to speak out and peacefully protest.” Meanwhile, NASCAR relaxed rules barring kneeling during the national anthem and banned Confederate flags from its events. Within days, a NASCAR driver was circling a track in a race car emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter and a NASCAR official was taking a knee during pre-race ceremonies.
The moves came in response to the protests that have erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died at the hands of the Minneapolis police. And they reflected shifting cultural attitudes — polls show an increasing percentage of the population view racism as a big problem in the country and the protests as a justified response.
Yet Trump stood his ground. He attacked Goodell, wondering whether the commissioner was telling players “that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the national anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” And he separately lashed out about a blossoming discussion about renaming military bases named after Confederate leaders.
The changing tenor from the two leagues could be pivotal for Trump, though. The president has long leaned on the front offices of each organization as he has publicly attacked athletes who took a knee during the national anthem, and privately pressured some team owners to change anthem rules. Trump has also relished NASCAR’s historically conservative, Southern fanbase, praising them for being “patriotic Americans” and serving as the grand marshal of the Daytona 500 earlier this year. At rallies, he has praised racing fans for standing during the national anthem, and cursed at NFL players taking a knee.
“The shift is really going to put a damper on one of his favorite playbooks,” said LZ Granderson, a sports and culture columnist for the Los Angeles Times who has been covering the NFL and NASCAR reactions to the Floyd protests. “People who didn’t give a damn before won’t give a damn now, but the people who view themselves as nonracist, they just aren’t going for that rhetoric anymore.”
The debate over kneeling during the national anthem began in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the song in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. Trump fanned the flames of the issue, at one point calling for NFL owners to fire players for taking a knee.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field,” he said during a 2017 rally in Alabama.
Around the same time, Trump praised NASCAR for resisting kneeling protests.
“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans,” Trump wrote in a tweet in September 2017. “They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!”
The next year, the NFL banned players from kneeling on the field during the national anthem, leading many players to simply stay near the locker room during the song. The decision put them in line with NASCAR.
Trump praised the decision, suggesting kneeling players “maybe shouldn’t be in the country” and taking credit for bringing attention to the issue before “the people pushed it forward.”
It was just one of several examples of how the president has used the NFL and NASCAR stances on protests to his political advantage, from taking a lap around the storied Daytona racetrack in his presidential limousine to using the NFL protests to rev up his fans at rallies. And the leagues’ refusal to allow overt kneeling gave Trump two allies as he fanned the culture war flames over the issue.
More broadly, the president has long aligned himself with the two leagues. Trump once tried to purchase an NFL team and counts some NFL owners, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, among his supporters and donors. Trump tapped New York Jets part-owner Woody Johnson as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. And he has praised the NASCAR-founding France family, some of whom are Trump donors, at political events.