For most of last week, the country had anticipated a typical fall Sunday of NFL football games.

That changed after Friday night when President Donald Trump issued a bizarre challenge that turned every National Football League pregame ceremony into a referendum on the state of racial relations and fractured politics in America.

Trump said at a political rally in Alabama that any player who disrespects the flag by not standing for the anthem is a “son of a b—-” who should be fired. He encouraged fans to walk out of stadiums or turn off the TV when that happens in order to punish the league.

Ugly words by Trump, but worse: unnecessary. The president’s opinion wasn’t invited. There was no great protest underway that required his refereeing. Some players have taken a knee before games to call attention to police shootings of unarmed African Americans. Yet until Trump spoke, Sunday’s lineup of games would have looked like any other: Bears vs. Steelers, Patriots vs. Texans, etc. In the wake of the president’s incendiary rhetoric, game day risked devolving into Liberals vs. Conservatives, Black Lives Matter vs. White Supremacists and possibly teammates vs. teammates, fans vs. fans.

Instead, what we saw from our perch in front of the TV was something hopeful: displays of unity from players and owners in defiance of Trump, and in support of the right of players to express themselves. Numerous owners called out Trump for being divisive and unhelpful. Bears Chairman George McCaskey endorsed “the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner.” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll declared this to be a “new day” in which players — the majority of whom are African American — would be “messengers of change” against inequality.

On the sidelines Sunday, some players at games did kneel. At Soldier Field, the Bears stood together with arms locked as the anthem played. The Steelers chose to retreat to their locker room to maintain team togetherness, although one Steelers player, Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, stood visible at the tunnel. On television, football analysts who typically concern themselves with X’s and O’s weighed in thoughtfully on the state of race in America.

Trump’s playbook is no secret. He was in Alabama addressing political supporters, so he talked about football and race. In doing so, he again failed a basic test of moral leadership, which requires that a president work toward bridging differences and healing wounds, not pandering to division.

As we’ve all read and heard, Trump said after the Charlottesville riots, which involved white supremacists and people protesting their presence, that there were some “very fine people on both sides.” But to Trump, any player who takes a knee during the anthem deserves a crude epithet. To recap the scoring: Trump gives whites at a neo-Nazi rally more respect than he gives black football players.

Our own view on the anthem protests is that American democracy is even tougher than football. Our form of governance was built to withstand, and embrace, peaceful demonstrations. Players who take the knee aren’t disrespecting the flag; they are living out the freedom it represents. By the same token, team owners have a say in the behavior of employees, but they’ve signaled their acceptance. If only the president could grasp such nuances.

After Charlottesville, we wrote about Trump’s regrettable pattern of speech on race. Because he can’t speak from the heart on the subject without sounding like an apologist for hatemongers, we said we’d prefer he keep his thoughts to himself: Going forward, how about he leaves discussions of free speech, race relations and religious protection to leaders who still have credibility?”

Guess we should have added sports to that list.

— Chicago Tribune