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opinion

For decades, the National Football League was an impenetrable fortress – the richest, most successful sports association in the United States, as integral a part of the American experience on Sundays as church. It was religion of a different sort.

Today, however, it is a different story. The league has never seemed more out of touch with societal currents, more in danger of allowing the racial tensions tugging at the moral fabric of the country to lead to unprecedented decline, even irrelevancy. And Donald Trump, of course, has something to do with it.

When quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, now not playing, decided nearly two years ago to demonstrate against racial injustice in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem, the NFL never imagined the reaction, first by players, and then by vast swaths of the NFL’s white fan base. Kneeling during the anthem, among other gestures of protest mostly by the league’s black players, would spread in 2017. This development prompted Mr. Trump to angrily lash out at the player-activists.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” he told a crowd in Alabama, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field now! Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’” His supporters ate it up. When he encouraged fans to boycott games, it changed everything. That’s when the NFL realized it had a serious problem on its hands.

Last week, the league announced that, this year, all players must stand for the anthem or face a fine. Players have the option of remaining in the dressing room if they don’t want to be on the field for the anthem. (It’s a policy that harks back to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” code the U.S. government had regarding military service by gays, lesbians and bisexuals.) Not surprisingly, few are thrilled with the NFL’s compromise, including Mr. Trump, who mused that any player who continued to disrespect the flag should be deported.

Most players are furious. Their union wasn’t consulted on the move, and they feel their first-amendment rights to free expression are being trampled by the league. The owners are an exclusive, mostly white cabal that includes friends of the President. As Chris Long, a player with the Philadelphia Eagles, so accurately observed, the league was motivated to act over concern about one thing: a diminished bottom line. “It’s fear of a President turning his [political] base against a corporation.”

Mr. Trump has done just that. Viewership plummeted last year. The President also has proxies out fighting the good fight for him. When the CEO of the New York Jets, Chris Johnson, said he would pay the fines of any player sanctioned by the NFL for kneeling during the anthem, the Republican congressman from the state, Pete King, called it disgraceful. “Would he support all player protests? Would he pay fines of players giving Nazi salutes or spewing racism?”

The U.S. President has largely helped define the NFL player protests as a demonstration against the flag and the men and women who risk their lives defending it. Ironically, Mr. Kaepernick began his act of defiance by sitting during anthems. After a meeting with a former NFL player and Green Beret, Nate Boyer, he started going down on one knee instead. It was Mr. Boyer’s idea, as he thought it was also an act of deference to the flag. It was never intended to be unpatriotic. Rather, it was solely intended to draw attention to police brutality against black citizens without provocation.

Almost on cue, the day the NFL announced its new policy, police in Milwaukee released bodycam video of officers using a taser on a black man outside a drugstore at 2 a.m. Turned out it was a player with the NBA Milwaukee Bucks, who was questioned by an officer for parking horizontally across the painted lines of a couple of stalls while he dashed inside to buy something. The lot was virtually empty. Soon, a phalanx of mostly white officers arrived, and quickly, Sterling Brown, who had done nothing to provoke the police, was on the ground, moaning from electric shock.

This is what the NFL anthem protest is all about. Now the league has killed it, and it should be ashamed.