(CNN)The NFL put out a statement on Wednesday denying it had capitulated to President Donald Trump and banned players from kneeling when the National Anthem plays before games.
The NFL and ESPN badly misjudged Trump. Now they're paying the price.
This remains true, so far as we know, in the abstract. The league has not imposed any formal restrictions. (Yet. There are more meetings planned.) But even as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened on Sunday to bench any player judged to be "disrespecting the flag," the presidential blitz continues -- and it becomes clearer that the NFL and ESPN's attempts to appease Trump have failed.
ESPN retreated on Monday, suspending SportsCenter host Jemele Hill, who has been critical of Trump on Twitter, following "a second violation of our social media guidelines." The inciting posts came in response to Jones' remarks, when she posited that fans who were dismayed by his statement might be wise to quit lining his pockets. (Hill later added that she was "not advocating a NFL boycott.")
Before his team's game this weekend, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross flatly admitted that Trump forced the NFL's hand, saying the President had upended the debate, which began more than a year ago, and distorted the players' anti-racist, anti-police brutality message.
Trump "changed that whole paradigm of what protest is," Ross said, according to a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "And I think it's incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, to really stand and really salute the flag."
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase duly made it team policy, beginning on Sunday, for anyone on the field before the game to remain standing for the anthem. Three players who kneeled in the past remained out of sight, in a stadium tunnel. Whether a league-wide edict would halt the wider demonstrations remains an open question.
For both the NFL and ESPN, the primary threat posed by Trump's campaign against the protests, which was kicked off during a September 22 rally in Alabama, has always been to their bottom line. But the terms of the clash were always more complicated. In sidelining Hill and threatening to bench players who crossed the President, the network and league, respectively, handed him the kind of win he thirsts for so desperately -- one that leaves his opponents humiliated.
Giving in to Trump will not earn the NFL and ESPN a reprieve. Quite the opposite. If anything, their apparent weakness will only invite further attacks. As the Republican establishment can attest, Trump and his allies do not, seeing their power grow, let up and move on. (This is a familiar rule to anyone who routinely deals with internet trolls.)
Ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Ask Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker. All three offered their support, or a helping hand, to Trump relatively early on in the GOP primary contest. Christie first battered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, then considered a viable rival, on a debate stage before leaving the race and lining up with Trump. Trump thanked Christie by publicly mocking his weight, then freezing him out of an administration job. Sessions was awarded his desired post, but is now scorned by the President for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump is currently at war with Corker, calling him, among other things, "Liddle Bob." He claimed over the weekend that his fellow Republican is retiring because he "didn't have the guts to run" again.
Similar patterns are emerging as the protest controversy rolls on. ESPN announced Hill's suspension on Monday afternoon. Trump woke up on Tuesday morning and expressed his gratitude by tweeting, "With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have 'tanked,' in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!"
(Note: ESPN's woes, overstated here, predate Hill's current assignment.)
On Monday night, after Jones spoke out against the protests but before the NFL more formally weighed in again, Trump dangled a carrot. "A big salute to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who will BENCH players who disrespect our Flag," he tweeted. "Stand for Anthem or sit for game!"
Less than 24 hours later, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a mostly inscrutable 424-word memo to team executives, obtained by CNN Money, stating his desire to "move past this controversy."
"Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us," he wrote. "We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues."
There follows some talk about implementing "an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues," with the purpose of promoting "positive change in our country."
To start, this presumes that the current protests are not achieving that aim. That's open for debate. Trump has given his side. The players have offered theirs. All the particulars aside, and no matter how the league chooses to frame it from here on out, Goodell elected to put in his lot with the President.
But it was not quite open surrender.
And so, the Trump clan responded, as an NFL announcer might say, by "jumping on the pile." A few hours after the memo went out, Eric Trump tweeted, "Amazing how quickly one changes their tune when viewership drops by 31%. #Revenue #StandForTheAnthem #U.S.A."
Donald Trump Jr. linked to a conservative website's post on Goodell, adding, "Strange, I thought he basically said the opposite last week??? #whathappened." He then retweeted his father, who early on Tuesday morning asked, "Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!"
Trump himself didn't join in until early Wednesday, when he tweeted, "It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem - RESPECT OUR COUNTRY."
The league quickly responded, through a spokeperson, to say, "commentary this morning about the commissioner's position on the anthem is not accurate." It went on to rehash the softer focus elements of Goodell's memo.
But it was too late. Trump may be badly hobbled in Washington, DC, but he is no less an astute manipulator of public opinion. The NFL and ESPN, like so many presidential candidates last year, reacted to Trump's attacks with tactics drawn from a bygone era.
Where does it end? That's tough to say. Given that Trump -- nearly a year after election day -- hasn't tired yet of jabbing at Hillary Clinton, there's no reason to think it'll be anytime soon.