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Trump’s NFL Attack Gives League a 'Hail Mary'

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the "Take a Knee" protest in 2016. He remains without a job in the NFL but may get the last laugh. (Denis Poroy / AP)

Donald Trump is, once again, God’s gift to the National Football League, which has rejected him not once but twice. In the early 1980s, Trump’s foolish spending and erratic business decisions helped doom his franchise, the New Jersey Generals, and the fledgling United States Football League. What Trump wanted was to be part of the prestigious NFL, but no NFL team was available to him. So Trump, out of spite, bought the Generals and bullied the USFL into direct competition with the NFL. (If you think pro football ratings were down last year—and they were—you should have seen the ratings for the Generals.) The USFL went under.

Then, in 2014, Trump made a bid for the Buffalo Bills and lost, but, true to form, he took to Twitter to explain it was not his fault and was actually glad that he was not the new owner.

 

Over the weekend, Trump launched a war against the NFL that shows no signs of letting up, despite the national emergencies he should be addressing. On Friday night, he tried to even the score with the NFL with a barrage of insults directed toward the league and its players before a crowd in Huntsville, Ala. In the wake of defiance by athletes and management in the NFL and NBA, he has continued his attacks with Twitter rants and speeches, tweeting Wednesday: “Spoke to Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys yesterday. Jerry is a winner who knows how to get things done. Players will stand for Country!”

All he has succeeded in doing, though, is giving NFL executives (owners, front offices and the commissioner) the “Hail Mary” they’ve desperately wanted.

This year looked to be when the NFL began paying the price, literally and otherwise, for playing the most brutal sport in the world as the shadow of brain damage from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—degenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma—became a very ugly truth.

On Jan. 7, the NFL agreed to a billion-dollar settlement as the result of a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 players and their families. By the Aug. 7 deadline, more than 18,400 players and associates (of a potential 21,000) had filed for compensation. The NFL could no longer deny CTE and the harmful effects of concussions.

Then, on July 25, a New York Times Magazine cover story focused on the results of a study by Dr. Ann McKee. The Boston University neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 former NFL players, and 110 showed signs of CTE.

There no longer was any doubt that CTE is real. A combination of crippling legislation and more lawsuits was on the horizon for the second-wealthiest sports franchise in the world. Just as the 2017 NFL season got underway to packed stadiums and the CTE issue seemed to quiet down, reports surfaced last week that Aaron Hernandez suffered from CTE. The former New England Patriots tight end committed suicide in prison in April after being convicted of murder; his CTE trauma was so acute that the 27-year-old’s brain resembled that of a player 40 or older.

While most analysts opined that CTE was not the sole reason for Hernandez’s murderous actions, his family filed a $20 million suit against the NFL and the Patriots. The NFL immediately responded: “We intend to contest the claim vigorously.”

And if you need further convincing, Jim Jefferies checked in Tuesday.

Then, along comes Trump, whose attacks on NFL players as well as the league itself has made NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—the same Roger Goodell who disgraced himself and the league by glossing over first reports of Ray Rice’s brutality against his then-fiancee a few years ago—into the new hero of American liberals.

In football terms, Trump is the guy all set up to throw a 50-yard touchdown pass when his team gets called for holding. He has raised more issues than a referee can throw a flag at. Let’s go to the videotape for his own words.

● Violence in football:

Trump lamented changes in the game due to the very issue that is now known to be a real threat to players of all ages. He told the Alabama crowd:

Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television—his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

The message here is, once again, that the president doesn’t let himself get bogged down in facts.

● The First Amendment is not for NFL players:

After faulting football for being too soft, Trump declared that NFL players are not patriotic. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ ” Trump said during a rally in Alabama.

Where to begin. To everyone who uses the president’s argument, let’s point out once and for all that neither Colin Kaepernick nor any player or fan who supports him is disrespecting our country or flag. What they are saying is that this country is not living up to the ideals that this flag represents, embodied by the social injustice suffered by African-Americans and other minorities in this country.

As for firing all who express political opinions contrary to those held by the president or any of the NFL owners, Trump ignores the fact that no one in the NFL has the power to fire any player. Disregarding for the moment the obvious point that you can’t take away anyone’s right as an American citizen to peaceful freedom of expression and political dissent, the players are all members of a union. Their rights are spelled out in detail in the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners.

Unions are really not something Trump ever learned to deal with. In the sleazy world of New York real estate, when Trump faced some sort of labor disagreement—he couldn’t get concrete delivered or something—he’d contact mob lawyer Roy Cohn to take care of it for him. See this Washington Post article from June 2016 or David Cay Johnston’s book “The Making of Donald J. Trump.”

But Cohn is long gone, and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) is a much stronger union than any Trump ever encountered.

● Playing in the NFL is a “privilege”:

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our great American flag (or country) and should stand for the national anthem. … If not, you’re fired. Find something else to do!”

A spot on the roster of an NFL team is a hard-won achievement that starts no later than an athlete’s high school years and often even before that, with peewee football. According to the NCAA, only 1.5 percent of all football participants are drafted by the NFL. In 2017, that’s 251 of 73,860 college players.

The money NFL players earn is not a privilege, either. They produce a product that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Only a spoiled brat prep school kid who did not play competitive sports beyond high school would talk about professional athletes in this way.

As for disrespecting our “great American flag (or country),” a five-time draft dodger has no business accusing other Americans of disrespect for our country.

● Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors:

Trump did not save all his vitriol regarding the sports world for the NFL. He also challenged the NBA.

Yes, it has been a great honor for teams to go to the White House since Dwight Eisenhower hosted the New York Yankees in the early 1950s. Since January, though, the visit hasn’t been regarded as such an honor. According to the Chicago Sun Times, when the Cubs were invited to visit the White House this summer for a second time (the first time, Barack Obama was in the Oval Office) while in Washington to play the Nationals, the team was “divided” about attending.

In August, several players from the New England Patriots (most of them black, though they included Tom Brady, who is white) failed to make their date with the White House.

Trump saw the current NBA trouble coming when rumors surfaced that the Warriors, the nearly all-black team in the most predominantly black professional sport in the country, would vote to skip the invite. Shaking hands with professional athletes is one of the reasons Trump wanted to be president in the first place, and knowing he might be embarrassed by Curry and Golden State was a blow to his ego. So he did what he usually does and tried to preempt it, making the disinvite seem that the decision was his.

● The NFL teams are teams:

In his arrogance, Trump never considered that, as with all sports leagues, these are teams. The owners need the players, and the players need each other. The near unanimous show of support for the players’ First Amendment rights was no surprise. What owner is going to piss off his players? What quarterback is not going to stand with the men who protect him on the line?

Much was made when Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who served three stints in Afghanistan, stood alone during the national anthem while his team waited in the tunnel. But Villanueva quickly explained it was a mistake on his part, and even apologized. “Unfortunately, I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally. Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself I feel embarrassed to a degree because unintentionally I left my teammates behind.”

Trump must have also been furious when Tom Brady posted a photo on Instagram of himself and teammate James White with the caption: “Strength. Passion. Love. Brotherhood. Team. Unity. Commitment. Dedication. Determination. Respect. Loyalty. Work. #nflplayer.”

● “This isn’t about race”:

As former presidential adviser David Gergen said Monday on CNN, “It is so clearly about race.” This is about race just as Charlottesville was, and just as it is every time you hear someone from the far right saying that it’s not about race. It’s only about race. This began when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016.

Now that I’ve said that, let me walk it back. Trump’s statements weren’t just about race. They were about using race to get a crowd worked up. The question is: After a certain point, what does it matter whether someone is a racist or merely uses the issue to whip a crowd into a frenzy?

Memo to the Republican Party: Chris Rock had it right when he said, “When you lose black America, you lose young America.” If there was any doubt before, none remains. Trump just lost young America.

A Point After

Colin Kaepernick’s jersey—which will be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City starting Oct. 1—was a hot seller even a year ago, shortly after his first peaceful protest, and it remains a top seller in American professional sports. Thanks in large part to Trump, but in larger part to Kaepernick’s own courage and integrity, sales will be astronomical and will make him a healthy income even without an NFL contract.

The NFL collective bargaining agreement splits merchandise sales, with two-thirds of the money going to the player and the rest going to the players’ union, which puts part of that into a fund for all players.

Maybe not being under current contract with any NFL team will change the split for Kaepernick and turn it into an incredible financial bonanza for him. I hope some enterprising apparel manufacturer jumps right in and offers him a deal for his own brand, sans team logo. In September 2016 on Instagram, Kaepernick dedicated his jersey profits to charity.

“I wasn’t expecting my jersey sales to jump to number one because of [my protest], but it shows the people’s belief that we can achieve justice and equality for ALL! The only way I can repay you for the support is to return the favor by donating all the proceeds I receive from my jersey sales back into the communities! I believe in the people, and WE can be the change.”

Since Friday’s rally in Alabama, many journalists have remarked that Kaepernick finally won. Maybe there is some hope for all of us.

Allen Barra
Contributor
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and regularly contributes to TheAtlantic.com and Salon.com. Barra has authored many books including “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, The…
Allen Barra

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