As the controversy over protests during the national anthem grew, President Donald Trump denounced NFL owners as being “afraid of the players,” a state of affairs that he called “disgraceful”. The lament fits a pattern in Trump’s war with the NFL, which has routinely been characterized as the president attacking African-American athletes, when, in fact, Trump’s immediate target is one much closer to him: the class and race traitors who make up the owners of the NFL.
One of the most haunting aspects of Trump’s battle with the players has been his consistent refusal to talk directly to or with them. His complaint, that they are refusing to stand during the national anthem, has been directed at the owners, a way to offer up an extra level of disrespect to the players. That refusal continued this week, as Trump spoke directly to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, reminding him of NFL rules he said applied to players around the anthem.
When Trump sparked the national debate, he did so by going right over the heads of the players. “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. He’s fired!’” Trump bellowed at a rally in Alabama in September.
Trump went on: “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
For Trump, it comes back to being popular — with the right audience. But if that carrot isn’t enough, he has the stick of tax and antitrust policy to wield at the owners.
Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
Like everything else with Trump, his war with the NFL is layered with motivations ranging from the base to the financial to the personal. It hints at his own history with the NFL, his particular vision of rule, and ultimately, a sense of betrayal that has set the league on a collision course with not just Trump, but his supporters as well.
Trump has commodified a vision of ownership that demands that bosses project complete dominance lest they become traitors to both their class and their nation — and, to the extent that Trump sees himself embodying the national spirit, they are at war with him personally. Through his so-called populist campaign and his TV show “The Apprentice,” he’s democratized that vision, transforming many of his supporters not into would-be apprentices hoping to learn from the great man, but mini-moguls with their own innate, incontrovertible knowledge about who should be “fired” and under what circumstances. Every viewer a king.
Trump began his relationship with the NFL back in the early 1980s, as a team owner in the upstart United States Football League. According to Trump’s pseudo-autobiography “The Art of the Deal,” he “liked the idea of taking on the NFL, a smug, self-satisfied monopoly” that he believed was vulnerable to an “aggressive competitor” like himself.
The USFL had favored a conservative and patient approach to challenging the NFL’s dominance, but Trump had other ideas. Once he joined the USFL, he spearheaded an effort to move its football season from the spring to the fall, so that they could compete head-on with the NFL. It was a complete disaster.
Then, with Trump again at the forefront, the USFL sued the NFL for having an illegal monopoly. This time they were victorious. After five days of deliberation, the jury ruled in the USFL’s favor and awarded them $1 for damages. Thanks to the Sherman Antitrust Act, that dollar was automatically tripled to $3. However, that windfall was not enough to save the USFL, which was broke by 1986 and dissolved.
The USFL continued to appeal the verdict, and according to David Cay Johnston’s “The Making of Donald Trump”: “Years later, after the Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, the NFL sent a check to the USFL, adding to the three dollars the legally required interest: seventy-six cents.”
Trump’s $3.76 victory did not end his interest in football or the NFL. He used his war with the league to gain publicity and put fellow members of the ownership class on notice. In the coming years, he would continue to circle the sport: befriending owners, revising history, and commenting on everything from draft picks to safety standards.
In 2014, he attempted to join the NFL’s ownership class once and for all by buying the Buffalo Bills for $1 billion. It was a serious effort, and one that faced pushback from the public. When ESPN’s Bomani Jones panned the idea of Trump as an owner, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, reached out to Jones to try to broker a meeting between Trump and Jones to win the latter over. The meeting never happened, according to Jones, who shared the story on his podcast, “The Evening Jones.”
Public perception of Trump aside, he was outbid by real estate mogul Terry Pegula, leading to one of his trademark Twitter tirades arguing that the new owners had overpaid for the team, that the game itself had gotten too “soft,” and that owners were not smart or tough enough to make the sport itself a “winner.”
Even though I refused to pay a ridiculous price for the Buffalo Bills, I would have produced a winner. Now that won’t happen.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2014
The @nfl games are so boring now that actually, I’m glad I didn’t get the Bills. Boring games, too many flags, too soft!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2014
Yet, despite all of this, Trump maintained close ties to the league, especially in his run for president. Some NFL team owners were among his most generous donors, contributing at least $7.75 million to his inaugural committee after having contributed to the campaign itself.
Trump appeared to repay the league’s loyalty. He appointed NFL Jets team owner Woody Johnson as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. He fawned over NFL stars, such as Tom Brady and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. His proposed tax plan would certainly reward team owners and other billionaires.
For presidents, football became a kind of depoliticized zone in which they could promote militarism or exorcise their personal political demons. According to Steve Almond’s “Against Football,” it was George H.W. Bush who transformed Super Bowl XXV into a kind of “infomercial for war,” culminating with a halftime address in which he described the Gulf War as what Almond described as “his Super Bowl.” Promoting war in that setting helped Bush combat the “wimp factor” that had plagued him for years.
The patriotic piety of football has been a refuge for every subsequent president, but with the rise of protests by players like Colin Kaepernick, Trump finds a safe space — a desperately needed safe space — vanishing, thanks in his mind to the spinelessness of fellow billionaires. And so, Trump is speaking past the players and to the owners directly: one boss to another. He needs a favor. He needs solidarity.
Trump’s vision of the employer-employee relationship is clearer and more consistent than his political views. David Cay Johnston documents Trump’s habit of not paying workers, noting that when building the Bonwit Teller building, Trump was accused of cheating workers out of overtime pay and workers compensation coverage, or simply not paying at all. Separately, Steve Reilly of USA Today discovered hundreds of dishwashers, mechanics, painters, and waiters who sued Trump for not paying his bills. These are just the workers and other contractors and counter-parties who bothered to file a suit, among some 3,500 who did — a truly staggering amount.
The NFL is no model employer or corporate steward either. The league has lied about the dangers of injury to its players. It hid from the public the extent to which the league was pushing painkillers on players, according to a lawsuit filed some league athletes. Teams often use public money to build stadiums, then collect all of the revenue from games. And, before Trump had even suggested it, the league had effectively fired Kaepernick.
These are the kinds of tactics that are part of Trump’s personal brand, but flaunting them would only hurt the league. To showcase their indifference to players’ health or to brag about naive, desperate municipalities paying a fortune to stadiums would make the league look like traitors to the public trust, which is exactly what they are. But, unlike Trump, the NFL cannot perform this exploitation without losing fans.
For Trump, performing and mainstreaming dominance is key to his appeal. His call for a “boycott” mobilizes his supporters, not as offended patriots, but as mini-moguls living vicariously through Trump: putting privileged workers in check, firing at will, and showing the world who’s boss.