NFL was told not to mix with Trump and now it’s paying for it
Team owners have created problems for themselves by giving in to the president
Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel in protest during the national anthem before the NFL International Series match at Wembley Stadium, London last month. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire
You can’t say the NFL wasn’t warned to stay away from President Trump – by one of its own owners, no less.
Yet time and again, the NFL has been cowed by a president willing to use his bully pulpit to win political points and exact a measure of revenge on a league that rejected his efforts to buy a team.
The latest admonishment came Monday night when the president disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from visiting the White House less than 24 hours before they were supposed to arrive. Some players had said they would not attend, unhappy with how the president had criticised them for protesting during the playing of the national anthem.
Trump said that if the entire team was not going to be there, then they need not show up at all.
That’s the thanks the NFL got for trying to appease the president.
Last month, the league, spooked by Trump’s repeated attacks, changed its policy so that players who kneel during the national anthem can now be punished, or their teams could face possible financial penalties. Players will be given the option of staying in the locker room during the pregame ceremony, as if they have to hide in shame.
Trump applauded the move, but the players have resisted, setting up the showdown over the White House visit.
The owners could have avoided this headache months ago had they listened to one of their own, the owner of the Eagles, who urged them not to get sucked into the president’s vortex.
That warning came last October, weeks after the president blasted the owners for not firing protesting players. About three dozen owners, players and league executives met in New York to discuss how to address the crisis, which had divided fans, sponsors and entire teams.
Some owners implored the players to back down, lest the president keep up his attacks on the league. It was bad for business, said Terry Pegula of the Buffalo Bills at the meeting. Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, said he supported the players’ efforts to address social injustice, but they had to “stop that other business.”
Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Eagles, took a different view. Don’t pander to the president, he said, by clamping down on the players. Work with the players and tune out the noise. The president will do what he does regardless.
“We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else,” he said at the meeting. “We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
Most of the owners took the bait anyway. Not long after the meeting, everyone from Commissioner Roger Goodell on down said they preferred if the players stood for the anthem. Behind closed doors, they debated how to change the league’s policy to force, not suggest, that players stand.
The owners changed that policy in May, infuriating the players, including many who did not protest during the national anthem last season.
Right on cue, the president declared victory. Trump said he was pleased with the NFL’s new policy, but said he did not think the players should even be staying in the locker room in protest. If a player is not standing for the national anthem, Trump said, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
If the owners thought the problem would be solved by tweaking their policy, they were wrong. They should have known better, even without Lurie’s warning. (Lurie took his own advice: In a statement issued Monday night, the Eagles thanked their fans but never mentioned the president.)
Trump has been fighting the league since the 1980s when, as the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived USFL, he successfully sued the league for violating antitrust laws. The victory was hollow. The upstart league won three dollars in damages and collapsed. Trump has tried to buy NFL teams over the years, but has been spurned, though he does remain friends with several owners, most notably Robert K Kraft of the New England Patriots. Things changed once he became president. He has attacked the league mercilessly, poking at Goodell and taking glee in the league’s television ratings falling. He even floated the idea of removing some of the league’s tax exemptions.
Had the other owners listened to Lurie, things might have turned out differently. Sure, Trump would continue to attack the league. But the protests – which only involved a handful of players by the end of last season – might have diminished on their own.
And while some fans might have continued to be upset with the league, the owners would have won points by supporting the players, a significant issue with contentious talks over the collective bargaining agreement looming.
Instead, they have the worst of all worlds – players are angry at the owners, and the president continues to attack the league. Not that they weren’t warned. – New York Times service