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Trump's national anthem Twitter feud with the NFL changed the game

A tweetstorm from Trump drew attention to players protesting by kneeling during the national anthem. Will that happen at the Super Bowl?

San Francisco 49ers players kneel on the sideline as the national anthem plays before a game last December.

San Francisco 49ers players kneel on the sideline as the national anthem plays before a game last December.

Getty Images

When the Super Bowl begins on Sunday, expect the normal pomp and circumstance we've seen for the past half century. Excited fans, over-the-top commentary and wacky commercials will be on display. And it all will start with the national anthem.

There will also be the unseen presence of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL football player who took center stage in the debate about the line between patriotism and protest.  

A year and a half ago, Kaepernick was a better-than-average quarterback. A promising second-round draft pick, he began his career with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. In the following years, he helped lead the team to play in the Super Bowl and then again in the playoffs.

But it's the other things he did that will change the way he's remembered. Beginning in late 2016, he started an on-field protest to draw attention to police violence and shootings. He did this by either sitting or kneeling, rather than standing, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

That act of quiet defiance made him into one of the men who changed the culture of football. Well, that and a Twitter feud President Donald Trump began with the league.

"It originated as a protest against police brutality, everyone was clear on that," said Glenda Gilmore, a US history professor at Yale University.

The protests vaulted Kaepernick to being the fourth-most talked-about athlete in the world last year, according to Twitter data. But as people's Twitter timelines filled with the more than 3.8 million tweets referencing the hashtags #takeaknee and #taketheknee after Trump weighed in, Kaepernick's message got muddied.

Trump changed the debate into a discussion about respect for the flag and veterans and whether players for the NFL have the right to protest. Entire teams protested in response.

"What's astonishing to me as a person, but not astonishing as a historian, is the fight over the narrative," Gilmore said.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists as the national anthem plays at the 1968 Olympics.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists as the national anthem plays at the 1968 Olympics.

Getty Images

Sports has always had an element of politics in it. There's the Olympics, which provoked a boycott movement when they were held in Nazi Germany in 1936 and which a number of countries, including the US, did boycott in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1968, the Olympics became a platform for protest when two sprinters raised their fists in the air as the national anthem was played. The boxing great Muhammad Ali failed to show up for the draft for the Vietnam War, saying he was a conscientious objector.

What made these protests different, Gilmore said, was the Twitter effect. Hashtags like #standforouranthem, #boycottnfl and #takeaknee, became an easy way for Americans and propaganda bots to pick a side and dig in.

Teams were divided. Players, coaches and owners were inundated with questions about where they stood. And once they spoke out, some fans responded quickly on social media.

The backlash was intense. "Social media is an opportunity for the average person to voice things they may be saying in other settings, like their private homes, or at work or among friends," said Charles Ross, the director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. "There's no filter."

Colin Kaepernick (center) said his original protests during the national anthem, like this one before a game in October 2016, were meant to draw attention to police misconduct.

Colin Kaepernick (center) said his original protests during the national anthem, like this one before a game in October 2016, were meant to draw attention to police misconduct.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Message received

The national anthem debate pretty much played out in two places: on the field and on Twitter. 

Trump's repeated tweets criticizing players were blamed for causing even more protests. Sports shows were reading his and other people's response tweets on the air. Hashtags over the debate became such hot Twitter topics that Russian-linked accounts joined in to stoke the conflict.

As Trump turned up the heat, recommending fans upset by the protests boycott the league, the NFL and the NFL Players Association put out a joint statement calling the comments "divisive." "The line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just 'shut up and play,'" NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in the statement.

Baltimore Ravens players kneel for the national anthem last September.

Baltimore Ravens players kneel for the national anthem last September.

Getty Images

Over the season, the ratings monster that was the NFL saw viewership slide. By early this January, ratings for the season had fallen nearly 10 percent, a faster decline than the 8 percent drop from the year before. There's some debate why, including larger issues like cord cutting and football's general oversaturation. And even though football games still accounted for 20 of the top 30 shows watched on TVs in the US, the message for some people was clear: Knock off the politics.

That message seems to have gotten through. Representatives for over two dozen players who had previously commented on, supported or participated in the protests, including stars like Terrell Suggs, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, either declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for comment. The same went with requests sent to three teams, two owners, the NFLPA and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The 49ers, which put out a statement in October urging unity around the protests, now say it's "not something we're looking to get into discussing at this time." The Baltimore Ravens, who said in September that they supported player protests "100 percent," responded to a request for comment this week with an even more direct "No thanks." And a spokeswoman for Joe Flacco and Brian Hoyer, quarterbacks who publicly supported the protests, responded to a request for comment saying, "They are not interested."

The message to the league has been so clear that when wrestling-entertainment giant Vince McMahon announced last month that he plans to reboot the XFL, his once-failed effort to compete with the NFL, he said players will be required to stand when the national anthem plays.

"People don't want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained," McMahon told ESPN. "We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time."

A New York Giants player kneels during the national anthem last November.

A New York Giants player kneels during the national anthem last November.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Whether Trump has tired of the discussion remains to be seen. The White House didn't respond to a request for comment. But, according to CNN, he's opted to break from the customary pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC, which is airing the game. 

On Sunday, about 10 hours before game time, Trump's fundraising committee did send out an appeal, saying, "They won't stand for the National Anthem," referring to Democrats later in the note. The email also asked recipients to sign its "Stand for America" petition to "send a message before the Super Bowl this Sunday."

So when the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles take the field in Minnesota on Sunday, many people will be watching to see who stands for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Expect to find out on Twitter. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. ET.

First published Feb. 3 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update Feb. 4 at 9:15 a.m. PT: Adds latest action from President Trump.

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