This is a barely recognizable president. It also is a barely recognizable generation of pro athletes. Thank God for the latter.
Just as the president lays his hand on the third rail of race, the athletes are responding.
The N.B.A. point guard Chris Paul:
To which LeBron James added his own message:
And Bishop Sankey, a Vikings running back:
Other athletes and the presidents of the N.F.L. and N.B.A. player unions have followed suit.
But in the surest and most striking sign of tectonic movements, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, as careful and conservative a leader as you’ll find in pro sports, felt compelled to call out the president on Saturday. (Trump, in an Emperor Nero complaining about the desultory quality of the gladiators moment, also lamented in Alabama that the N.F.L. had become insufficiently violent.)
“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the N.F.L., our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” Goodell said in a statement.
It’s not clear how this plays with Goodell’s masters in N.F.L. ownership. They donated many millions to Trump’s presidential campaign; the New England Patriots’ owner, Robert K. Kraft, showered $1 million on the inaugural and has been a vocal ally; and the Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, wrote a letter endorsing him last fall.
To summarize this exquisite collision of sports, politics and business: The 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem last season, stirring a national debate about patriotism and the treatment of blacks by the police. For that, the N.F.L. owners appear to have blackballed him from the league this year. For that, more players have taken up Kaepernick’s cause. And for that, President Trump disparaged the league and challenged the owners to fire players for exercising their right to free speech — which they have effectively done to Kaepernick already.
And now Kaepernick’s once lonely protest suddenly has many more supporters.
Let me pause here. For more than a decade, athletes have been chipping at the shells that so many owners, college boosters and media executives had wished upon them. College athletes have tried to organize unions and challenged the N.C.A.A. in court. N.F.L. players have revitalized their once broken-down union; N.B.A. stars have spoken out on all manner of issues.
They have been active citizens, and that is stirring. This cuts both ways. If an athlete were to engage in protests against, say, abortion or gay rights, that would be no less in keeping with our nation’s finest free speech traditions.
It’s striking how completely the president has stood this principle on its head. He taunted N.F.L. owners, urging them to fire players who engage in anthem protests.
“They’ll be the most popular person in this country,” Trump said, “because that’s a total disrespect of our heritage, that’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
The president’s invocation of heritage has become his favorite dog whistle; it also deeply misconstrues our traditions. I’ll recruit my departed father into this scrum. Like many young men of his generation, he volunteered to fight in World War II, and he flew missions on a B-17 bomber. Years later, when Vietnam and civil rights and labor struggles bubbled, and protesters sat out anthems and even burned flags, his view was unwavering: He had fought for an America in which citizens could speak and dissent freely and act morally.
What’s notable is how measured the athletes have tried to remain, until poked and prodded. James appeared in a video for Michael Bloomberg’s global forum. “I hope and I pray that all of you know how much all of us need you now,” he told the assembled corporate and societal leaders.
Curry has not been as explicitly political as James in recent years, but he did not sidestep the moment. President Trump said he was barring Curry from the White House, but Curry had already made a case for not going.
“By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change,” he said, “when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to.”
The president is an expert provocateur, and one does well not to underrate him. But notice how the athletes’ eyes are so wide open.