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At this point, we know the drill. When standing in front of a red-meat crowd, President Donald Trump always reaches for the hot button. In Alabama, supposedly campaigning for a senate candidate, he veered off the teleprompter, searching for something to make the boosters roar.

Alabama? Humm. They like football. And patriotism.

And he was off, suggesting NFL owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field” if a player doesn’t stand for the national anthem. (Somewhat overlooked was the callousness of his suggestion that by emphasizing safety, the league was “ruining” the game. Who cares if there is brain damage; let’s see those big hits.)

This has been going on with Groundhog Day regularity since he was elected. He says something outrageous and then we convene a panel of analysts and experts who pronounce Trump “reckless” or “petty” and say that such comments are beneath the dignity of the office.

We know.

But this one is different.

Ever since the season began we’ve been hearing about the rift between the players in the NFL, the old, mossback owners and the pathologically conservative coaches. It is said they refused to sign Colin Kaepernick because he knelt for the anthem while playing for the 49ers.

How many owners, critics demanded, contributed to Trump?

A lot. A CNN report found that NFL owners contributed $7.75 million to Trump’s Inaugural Committee. That includes $1 million from both Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan and New England owner Robert Kraft’s company.

As of last weekend, they have something else in common. With a few exceptions, the owners jumped ship and issued statements that backed the rights of the players to protest. Khan took the field and linked arms with his players in solidarity. Kraft, a longtime Trump pal, said he was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s comments.

And Monday night, on national television, Dallas’ Jerry Jones — Jerry flippin’ Jones, the owner of “America’s Team” — not only stood with his team on the field, he took a knee with them. In the news biz, that’s what we call a statement.

And have you noticed how the protests have played out? Virtually without exception, players have been serious and thoughtful. The photographic tableaus of kneeling players — like Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell — look committed, proud and inspired.

And, faced with an infinite number of chances to say something incendiary — even after prodded with leading questions from us jerks in the media — the responses have generally been a model of civil discourse.

By the way, Mr. President, these are major public figures. Steph Curry has 10.5 million Twitter followers. And, just a word of warning — Curry has a sense of humor and he is not afraid to use it.

LeBron James, who just tweeted the mild “U bum” burn, has more than 36 million followers — not far from your 39 million, Mr. Trump.

Trump has tried to spin the backlash as a triumph for him, citing the boos in Arizona on Monday night. But we’re not hearing many people speak up against the players.

Somebody trotted out reliable NASCAR redneck Richard Petty, who reached all the way back to the “love it or leave it” days.

“Anybody who don’t stand up for the anthem should be out of the country. Period.” Yeah, and get a haircut, you hippie.

But even that was undercut when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the biggest name in the sport, tweeted support of peaceful protest. It’s starting to look like a trend, Mr. President.

(By the way, keep an eye on the NBA for the next stage. The league has a rule that players are required to “stand in a dignified posture” during the anthem.)

One thing lacking is a definable goal and outcome. The greatest clapback of all time was Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. When Owens won four events, it forced Adolf Hitler to leave the stadium rather than suffer the embarrassment of handing gold medals to a black man.

My generation protested the Vietnam War. When several athletes joined in, they were told to pipe down. They didn’t. But there was an endgame — withdrawal from the conflict.

Improving racial relations or trying to stop the shooting of innocent people by police are laudable goals, but there’s no single accomplishment or change to point to. Just sayin’.

Meanwhile, here’s a crazy, off-the-wall thought. Is it possible that this might make it a PR win to sign Kaepernick?

You can bet the owners gave lots of thought to their Trump response. And they must have concluded it was not going to hurt them with ticket holders.

Doesn’t every fan base want to think of itself as tolerant and inclusive?

So, to totally demonstrate a commitment, wouldn’t the logical step to be to sign Kap? (Full disclosure: I still think he wasn’t signed originally because scouts thought he was one-dimensional. But this is a whole new discussion.)

It would be the irony of ironies.

Looking to get a few cheap cheers, Trump runs into a harsh reality.

A small movement he wanted to stomp out has grown exponentially. Friends and donors he thought he could count on defied him. And by mobilizing sports superstars, he has accomplished exactly the opposite of what he was trying to do.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with North Korea.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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