President Donald Trump’s repeated broadsides against professional athletes dominated the news over the weekend, with pundits from ESPN to CNN to Fox News questioning the wisdom of his statements. But the story was sharply different on leading right-wing news sites, where Trump’s attacks on players like Stephen Curry and Colin Kaepernick received not just huge attention but acclaim.
Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow said metrics indicated that a Sunday morning post on the topic by the site’s Facebook account had greater reach than any post in Breitbart history.
“There is an unbelievable amount of interest,” Marlow said on Sunday night. “I’m looking at my 10 or 11 top stories now, and maybe 7 of them are NFL related.”
“This is the radicalization of the NFL right now,” he said. “It’s being encouraged by the media, it’s being encouraged by Hollywood and I don’t think that people, at least if the comments and the phone calls to Breitbart are any reflection, I don’t think they like it. They just want neutrality, they don’t want politics in football games.”
With the president facing potential setbacks on a number of fronts, his seemingly out of the blue call for protesting athletes to lose their jobs represents the type of cultural issue capable of rallying his conservative base. Breitbart has opposed the president with greater frequency of late—particularly in Alabama’s senate special election—so the NFL issue provided an opportunity for Trump to remind supporters of why they like him.
The Alabama election may have received the top headline spot on Breitbart for much of Sunday, but as games rolled on throughout the day, from the Ravens and Jaguars’ morning kickoff in London through the Washington-Oakland tilt in primetime, Breitbart’s homepage was loaded with NFL stories. One typical headline read: “NFL snowflakes melt: coaches and owners join massive anti-Trump protest—in U.K.”
The story had nearly 33,000 comments as of early Monday afternoon, tens of thousands more than any other non-sports related story currently on the site’s homepage.
“A lot of people know Andrew Breitbart for his quote, politics is downstream from culture, so the cultural issues that fold in the politics tend to be utterly explosive in terms of the interest level from our readers,” Marlow said.
That level of interest appeared to be consistent across other right-leaning sites. The issue received top billing on Drudge Report, Infowars and The Daily Caller, where the lead story most of the day focused on Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and was the only Pittsburgh Steeler to emerge from the locker room for the national anthem.
Five of The Daily Caller’s top 10 stories were NFL related, according to Geoffrey Ingersoll, the site’s editor-in-chief. He believed the NFL story attracted readers simply because of its news value, but also because, “I think we’ve seen a steady encroachment of politics into once pristine places. This creep has been occurring in sports for a long time, and it seems to be hitting a crescendo of sorts.”
Villanueva’s story—with its military connections—was featured prominently on other sites, like The Gateway Pundit, as well. The site also ran headlines, including: “UNREAL. NFL Players stand for “God save the Queen” and kneel for US National Anthem in London” and “President Trump continues to slam anti-cop NFL for allowing players to disrespect flag and country.”
“Our readers are very upset about these continued anthem protests,” emailed Jim Hoft, the founder of The Gateway Pundit. “It is all people talked about.”
Marlow said that whenever Breitbart covers the protests by NFL players on its website or Sirius radio shows, no topic elicits more comments or call-ins. Social media engagement over the weekend was also through the roof.
The text of the Breitbart Facebook post that went viral reads: “Dear NFL: We will not support millionaire ingrates who hate America and disrespect our Armed Forces and Veterans. Who wins a football game has ZERO impact on our lives. Who fights for and defends our nation has EVERY impact on our lives. We stand with the Heroes, not a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates. Signed, We the People.”
As of Monday afternoon, the post had racked up more than half a million shares, more than 260,000 reactions, and 21,000 comments.
Marlow believes that his audience’s strong reaction is driven by a desire to see sports and politics clearly separated from each other. “So much of America is politicized,” he said, “why sports too? And that’s the question that the audience is asking most right now.”
Much of the NFL world, however, saw Trump as furthering political divisiveness in sports, as his attacks on Kaepernick and a few other noteworthy protesters provoked hundreds more players to join in kneeling for the National Anthem.
Jeffrey Sammons, a New York University history professor who has studied sports and race, said that he thinks there are many other factors at work here. “It’s not about removing politics from football,” he said, pointing out that Trump has focused his criticism largely on black athletes. Sammons called the Breitbart post “a euphemistic presentation of racist sentiment.”
“What they’re talking about is the uppity black or uppity Negro who doesn’t know their place,” Sammons said. “I just think that there is resentment about black athletes — successful black athletes, wealthy black athletes, or at least high earning black athletes and that somehow they need to know how lucky they are.”
“Race and politics have played a role in sports throughout,” he said. “We can’t separate them.”
Marlow denied that there was racial motivation behind the post. “Sports is supposed to be about athletic excellence and is essentially color-blind,” he emailed Monday. “The race-obsessed left has declared the normative belief that the most privileged group of people in our society (professional athletes) should stand for our national anthem racist. It’s absurd and there is no way they are going to convince the public.”
Regardless of who is convinced of what, Trump’s comments only served to further divide the nation, according to former White House advisor and current Fox News contributor Karl Rove. He said on the program Fox News Sunday that Trump is “walking away from this a loser.” He elaborated to POLITICO that, if the president was going to address the issue at all, he should have focused on the positive aspects of why Americans salute the flag and anthem, not condemned athletes.
“The base is happy because this is one where the president is on their side,” Rove said. But that, he said, has limitations. “You can’t win an election and you can’t govern a country, more importantly, by appealing to the base only.”
“There’s a reason why the president has lower approval ratings than any president at this time following their inauguration. Because he has missed the opportunities to unite the country,” Rove said.
With 14 more weeks of NFL regular season games slated, and NBA training camps currently opening up for the new season, this is an issue unlikely to go away soon. Marlow said that, as long as athletes protesting continues to be news, Breitbart will stay focused on it.
“I see the intensity maintaining on this thing,” Marlow said. “I always gravitate to news stories that provide clarity for where we are in society right now, and I think this story provided a lot of clarity.”
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