WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 05:  White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls on reporters during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House September 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. Sanders fielded questions about President Donald Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, an Obama-era executive action that allows certain undocumented immigratns who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House defends Trump's NFL comments
02:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings is a CNN contributor and former special assistant to President George W. Bush. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Scott Jennings: Trump understands that his base may support free speech but is largely opposed to taking a knee in football

A liberal freak-out plays right into Trump's hands, Jennings writes, further signaling to his base that it's right to revolt against left-lurching culture

CNN  — 

If you are upset about President Donald Trump’s position on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem – an opinion he colorfully expressed in a speech in Alabama and in a series of follow-up tweets – take a deep breath and listen.

There’s good reason to believe that public opinion is on his side.

Scott Jennings

Understanding this doesn’t mean that you are wrong or that your feelings are not valid; it just means that the President has again found a winning cultural issue with which to solidify his standing in Middle America.

Last September, Reuters conducted a survey in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s “taking a knee” for the national anthem and found that, although a majority said he had a constitutionally protected right to protest, 72% of Americans thought his display was “unpatriotic,” and 61% disagreed with him doing it.

And that was a survey among all Americans. For President Trump, that survey last year may well have offered a clue. And the loud “boos” ringing in several NFL stadiums across the country this weekend lead me to believe it was one he read accurately – that many actual football fans lean toward the President’s feelings.

Another clue? As CNNMoney reports, Alejandro Villanueva’s jersey “just became the hottest buy in the NFL,” outselling all others. Who is Villanueva? The only Pittsburgh Steeler this weekend to emerge from the locker room and stand for the national anthem.

Players have a right to protest – clearly – and most conservatives I know don’t begrudge any American’s right to express a view under the First Amendment.

Speech, truly, is free, and every American is welcome to speak his or her mind.

What we are not free from, however, is the consequences of our speech. I don’t like people kneeling during the national anthem, but I respect their right to do it (even though it is likely to negatively impact the NFL, as it pits the league against many sports fans with opposing views).

A survey conducted this August by The Washington Post and UMASS Lowell found “the most common reason that fans reported for a decrease in interest in the NFL in recent years was not concussions or violence, but political issues. Of those who identified that reason, 17% pointed to protests during the national anthem by players such as Colin Kaepernick.”

I suspect these acts of free speech will negatively affect a league that some commentators have said is already in “decline.” As columnist Larry Stone wrote in the Seattle Times, “the NFL has major issues that seem to be converging at once to form a cesspool of negativity.”

I don’t like the idea of kneeling for political protest during the national anthem because it interrupts an important ritual that is uniquely American; we participate together in the anthem– at NFL stadiums, at Little League baseball games, at high school graduations and at any number of civic gatherings, no matter our geography. That ritual reminds us that we are all, as Americans, in this together.

It’s not surprising that a clear majority of Americans – according to the Reuters polling – have expressed a negative, visceral reaction to multimillionaire athletes disrespecting a patriotic national ritual in honor of the country that has given them the opportunity to make a living beyond the wildest dreams of 99.9% of the world’s inhabitants.

President Trump gets this: he has a gut-level instinct for cultural issues that cause mass liberal freak-out when he brings them up. Many people in Middle America agree with him on this issue, and this liberal elite freak-out makes it an even more effective tactic.

Such overreactions play right into Trump’s hands, further reinforcing to the Trump Tribe that they are right to be in full revolt against a nation whose culture dramatically lurched to the left during the Obama years. This is a key reason Democrats lost control of the politics of the Rust Belt in 2016.

Trump has routinely exploited this for political benefit.

The idea of respecting our national anthem, flag, and country’s patriotic traditions is baked into Americans’ civic education: they may believe people have a right to do otherwise, but they don’t have to like it when they see it. Many Americans – particularly those away from the media capitals of the east and west coasts – are basically right where Trump is on this issue, even if some are uncomfortable with the President’s colorful and strident language.

To be sure, race relations and tension between police and minority populations – the issues that had Kaepernick and others taking a knee – are among the most worrisome cultural problems we face in American society. They didn’t begin on President Trump’s watch; in fact, a CNN/ORC poll taken in the last months of Barack Obama’s presidency showed that most Americans believed racial tensions had already worsened during his tenure.

It is up to all of us to work together to ease these tensions and reduce the fear and violence that exists in too many American cities.

I suspect these protests – originally intended to draw attention to these problems – have now taken on a life well beyond that intention and could potentially have the opposite effect originally intended by Kaepernick.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this commentary referred to Alejandro Villanueva emerging from the dugout to stand for the national anthem. He emerged from the locker room.