Black athletes from Muhammad Ali to Tommie Smith have taken a stand before – but Donald Trump is the most powerful spur to dissent the US has ever seen. Will the wave of protests in the NFL help take him down or just fuel his culture war?

Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during The Star-Spangled Banner last August, when he was still a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and Barack Obama was still president. He was protesting against the killing of African Americans by police officers. The date is worth repeating because it seems likely that, in the near future, Kaepernick’s gesture will be misremembered as a protest against Donald Trump. Trump has made sure of that. His great and terrible skill as a politician is to make everything about Donald Trump.

Last Friday, at a rally in Alabama, Trump ranted, unprovoked, about football players who took the knee during the national anthem, calling on NFL owners (“friends of mine”) to fire any “son of a bitch” who dared to protest. There was no need in the case of Kaepernick, who is in limbo as a free agent with no NFL teams willing to touch him. Later, on Twitter, he retracted an invitation to NBA champions the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House after the team’s star player, Stephen Curry, expressed reservations. In a stroke, he ensured that Kaepernick’s form of protest went viral. Dozens of NFL stars and other athletes took the knee over the weekend, as did musicians Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams and John Legend, and this time the target was clearly Trump. LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers tweeted in Curry’s defence: “U bum … Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”

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