The Atlantic, February 4, 2019
Heading into Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL probably believed that it had Donald Trump exactly where it wanted him. Which is to say, it had him quiet. But the NFL discovered that no amount of bootlicking will control the president’s mouth.
The president had mostly ceased his fiery, public rebukes of the NFL and its handling of Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Trump’s broadsides were theatrical and effective, and showcased his political muscle. Nothing usually frightens the NFL, but the president had successfully punked the most powerful sports league in America into silencing player protests, while simultaneously exacting long-awaited vengeance on the NFL for subverting his numerous attempts to become a franchise owner.
You might think the NFL’s strategic behind-the-scenes groveling and appeals to the president’s ego would have bought the league even more leeway with Trump, but on Sunday, Trump couldn’t resist throwing a jab at the league on its holy day.
During his pre–Super Bowl sit down with CBS’s Face the Nation interviewer Margaret Brennan, Trump said he would never encourage his son Barron to play the sport, because it is “dangerous.” If the NFL is going to sell out to Trump, it should have at least checked the fine print to make sure the president wouldn’t remind millions of viewers about the NFL’s link to head injuries and CTE.
“The helmets have gotten far better but it hasn’t solved the problem,” Trump said. “So, you know, I hate to say it, because I love to watch football. I think the NFL is a great product, but I really think that as far as my son—well, I’ve heard NFL players saying they wouldn’t let their sons play football. So it’s not totally unique, but I would have a hard time with it.”
This is quite a reversal for Trump, who had a different opinion of the NFL back in 2016, probably because it suited his political interests and played to his tough-guy persona. After a woman fainted at one of his campaign events in Lakeland, Florida, and later returned, Trump said, “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions—‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”
“Football has become soft like our country has become soft,” Trump declared at another 2016 rally. “The outcome of games has been changed by what used to be phenomenal, phenomenal stuff. Now these are rough guys, these are rough guys. These guys—what they’re doing is incredible, but I looked at it and I watched yesterday in particular. So many flags, right? So many flags.”
But that was then. In the intervening two years, the league has squandered its credibility and dignity just to keep the president from throwing temper tantrums about the sport. And now, on Super Bowl Sunday, Trump points out the dangers of playing football.
There are countless examples of how Trump’s loyalty runs only in one direction. The revolving door at the White House is perfect proof of that. Appeasing Trump’s ego doesn’t seem to be a sound long-term strategy, because Trump seizes on opportunities to gain political capital, paying no mind to collateral damage. ...
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