Before the anthem protest controversy becomes the beast that consumes the NFL, Seattle Seahawks CB Richard Sherman had an observation Wednesday that offered some clarity regarding consequences of President Trump’s unprovoked interjection that suddenly has him wrapped around the NFL’s axle.
“We’re trying to make people understand that this world and this country is for everybody — we’re all American,” Sherman said regarding the protesting players’ agenda. “Sometimes our president gets into the we-and-them kind of conversations. Sometimes you wonder, who is we and who is them?
“This time, he was talking regarding NFL players. When you’re president and you’re talking about fellow Americans, you always have to say we, or you become divisive. When your supporters continue to press that rhetoric, and then they say others are divisive because they reacted to that, you get to the problems we have today.”
If you look around the cultural landscape, Sherman is right. Trump used the unfiltered bullhorn of his Twitter presidency to inflame an old issue, the flag’s gnarly American dichotomy as a symbol of rebellion as well as patriotism.
Conflict over the flag’s meaning pre-dates the Trump presidency and will survive it. But in this time of polarization, the Trump bump gave the issue remarkable reach and depth. Potentially, we have:
— Fans vs. fans in the stands
— Players vs. players in the locker room
— Franchises’ long-term financial interests vs. players’ shorter-term human interests
— Television viewers vs. network coverage
— Sportswriters vs. readers
— Kids vs. parents
And on and on …
In political terms, Trump has deployed a tactic called a wedge issue, meaning a topic that is used to “drive a wedge” between people that would otherwise agree on many things (12s and Seahawks, for example), which can either distract, or gather supporters from one side to another, or both.
Trump fueled the fire again Wednesday, telling reporters that if the league didn’t put a stop to the protests, the business of the NFL would go to hell.
The anthem protest as a wedge issue is working. So much so that Russian hackers, of the same ilk that infiltrated the 2016 presidential election, have entered the fray, according to Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
An Associated Press story quoted Lankford, a member of the Senate intelligence committee and privy to information on Russian tactics, testifying that troll farms were using Twitter hashtags #takeaknee and #boycottNFL to amp up the controversy:
“They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend, and pushing them out from their troll farms as much as they could to try to just raise the noise level in America and to make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue.”
Why? According to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who helped create a website that tracks Russian propaganda on social media, the Russian trolls seek to disrupt.
Although Watts told AP he can’t say with certainty about the degree of influence, the trolls’ efforts would be consistent with other documented propaganda campaigns that originated in Russia, such as the use of Facebook to push messages for and against the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The goal is to sow division in America,” Watts said. “They’ll use organic American content to amplify to American audiences. They would much rather use organic American content. It hits the audience better and it’s cheaper and more effective.
“The Russians can just sit back and say: ‘Amplify on both sides. Make people angry.’ And it works, man … it works.”
There’s nothing more organic in America than football and the flag. So if you have been stirred by the protests, Trump’s retorts and the players’ response, you have been played.
Whether Seahawks coach Pete Carroll understands the finer points of this trolling, he knows two things.
The 1-2 Seahawks have a certain urgency attending their home game Sunday against the 1-2 Indianapolis Colts, a 13-point underdog, and they have to deliver more focus that they had in the mistake-filled, 33-27 loss in Tennessee, which was preceded by difficult, emotional meetings Saturday deciding how to respond to Trump’s denigrations.
“I think that last week was about making a statement and I think, moving forward, it’s about making a difference,” he said. “Our players sense that, our coaches sense that. We’d really like to focus and make sure football is really at hand and that we are doing everything we can. We did last week as well, with another issue to deal with (the Trump tweets).
“I know we already feel like (this week) is different. There is nothing lost in the sincerity of the statements that were made. Nothing lost in the willingness to make a difference as we move forward. But it is really important for all of us. We feel it. Everybody wants to really do everything we can to make sure the games that we play are going to be played the best we can possibly play them.”
Carroll was indirectly conceding the obvious: Trump’s trolling took a toll on a team that is very socially conscious. It’s not an excuse, but one among several reasons that the Seahawks were subpar.
It’s also why Carroll took pains to create a unified protest, which really was little more than an avoidance of the potential for disruption. With little time for anything more, the Seahawks’ staying inside for the anthem was the most useful way to help restore a 53-man “we,” as Sherman put it, and let “them” sort it out.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.