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Baltimore Ravens receiver Mike Wallace, left, former player Ray Lewis and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley lock arms and kneel during the U.S. anthem before an NFL game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London.Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

When Donald Trump won the U.S. election last November, the American sports establishment got down in a protective crouch.

Few athletes said anything about the new President. The bold-faced names held their powder.

Vaguely famous Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans was one of the few dissenters, beginning his own anthem protest.

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"I'm not gonna stand for somebody I don't believe in," Mr. Evans said.

The protest didn't get far. Within a few days, Mr. Evans walked the whole thing back and issued the usual "sorry for offending you" boilerplate.

The thinking at the time seemed to be that as long as Mr. Trump stayed in his corner, the sporting fraternity would remain in its own. The players were still thinking like human brands, and Republicans buy sneakers, too.

That changed this weekend. Mr. Trump's comments about owners firing players who kneel during the national anthem prompted a huge increase in such protests during Sunday's games. Hundreds of NFLers sat or kneeled or raised their fists.

Whatever equilibrium might have existed has been tipped over because Trump is Trump. His raison d'être is provocation.

All it took was a few rambling sentences and an early morning message on social media to radicalize a good portion of two major sports leagues.

Mr. Trump's "son of a bitch" comment about kneelers and his disinviting of the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors have brought the NFL and NBA closer to open war with him. But that war has many fronts, and not all of them extend outward.

By early Sunday afternoon, you could see a shift under way. The smattering of dissenters has become a large crowd, though it remains conspicuously racially divided.

Dozens of players kneeled before a Jacksonville-Baltimore game held at London's Wembley Stadium. Fewer than half of the Denver Broncos stood for The Star-Spangled Banner.

Later, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they would not be coming out of their locker room until after the anthem had been played.

"People shouldn't have to choose," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told CBS. "If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his teammate who chooses not to."

In other words, we don't want the players seeing who their enemies are.

(Contrast that Solomonesque approach with the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins' bafflingly timed announcement that they are still going to visit the White House. Whoever decided that this Sunday was a good time to put out that news release ought to have his hands broken with a hammer, lest they type again. And if anyone still doubts that this dispute is racial, the NHL has foolishly highlighted that for them.)

This ground has been shifting for some time, but it's now tectonic and unpredictable. Trump v. Sports becomes the most fascinating crack in America's great schism. But to what end?

The knee-jerk here is to say, 'What a mistake Trump's made. He's finally picked on the wrong guys!' I doubt it.

Whenever the world gets too real, Mr. Trump picks a diversionary spat. The more celebrated and less consequential the foil, the better for Mr. Trump. Hollywood hacks work best. Athletes are nearly as good.

Mr. Trump gets to burnish his anti-elite credentials while drawing attention away from the country's actual problems. It's a sick narrative of decline enthusiastically endorsed by the left.

Mr. Trump yells at them. They go to the Emmys and yell at him. Everyone gets on Twitter to gorge on loneliness and rage, while feeling smug about their right thinking.

Will sports stars be drawn into this merry-go-round of hate, with just as little effect? However much you'd like the answer to be 'No', you know from recent experience that it's probably, 'Yes'.

I'm sure it felt good for basketball star LeBron James to call Mr. Trump "a bum" on Twitter. He had good reason.

But what's the next move? Because name-calling is not going to get anything done. Skipping the White House invite will not effect change. And once taking a knee becomes ubiquitous, it will also become meaningless.

Gestures are useful political tools only so long as they maintain the ability to shock. The idea that basketball players do not like Mr. Trump is already a banal truism. It doesn't move anyone on either side of the line.

If players believe fans must choose between the sports they follow and Mr. Trump, they're wrong. People have a remarkable ability to maintain a cognitive dissonance if doing so brings them pleasure. Plenty of Americans will continue to watch playoff basketball and vote for Mr. Trump, and never feel the least bit conflicted about it.

No American is going to allow politics to ruin football. It's the closest thing they still have to a shared culture. Once that goes, they'll be digging trenches along the Mason-Dixon line.

Meanwhile, you can already see the counter-revolt fomenting. When New England Patriots' players took a knee on Sunday, their own fans booed them. Broncos lineman Derek Wolfe put out a statement protesting the protests, saying in part, "if you don't think we are the greatest country in the world … then why do you stay?"

This thing is going from a small, highly motivated group of player-protesters tolerated by the apolitical remainder, to two camps divided by geography, class and, largely, race.

If it's possible that Mr. Trump will be undone by the righteous Instagramming of Mr. James et al, it's just as conceivable that the leagues will spend three years putting aside their 'Hey, we're all the same because we're all here to get super-rich' ethos and spend it tearing one another down instead.

Despite all the high-fiving on the left, Mr. Trump won this round. This is what he does: set people against each other.

How they react to his incitement isn't the point. It's chaos for chaos's sake. We've already seen this contagion affect the American polity and most of its cultural bulwarks. But those were already going sideways. Until recently, the NFL and NBA were stable institutions that promoted an idealized vision of American unity.

Now fully emboldened, Mr. Trump has turned his rhetorical cannons on the last thing that bound Americans of all political stripes: sports. And you can already see everyone rethinking which team they're on.

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