The Slatest

Will the NFL Ever Stand Up to Trump?

Donald Trump speaks during a rally for Alabama state Republican Sen. Luther Strange.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

For a good chunk of his 71-plus years on Earth, Donald Trump desperately wanted to be an NFL owner. In the 1980s, he tried and failed to buy the Baltimore Colts, and this humiliation prompted his dalliance with the USFL. Thanks largely to his leadership, that second-tier league went bankrupt and disbanded in 1986. In 2014, Trump placed a losing bid to purchase the Buffalo Bills. Unable to make his dream of owning an NFL franchise come true, Trump settled for the presidency, a position he’s now using to take potshots at a club that never wanted him as a member.

At an Alabama rally to (kind of) endorse Luther Strange’s Senate campaign, Trump used a literal bully pulpit to demand NFL owners fire players who protest during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love,” the president brayed, “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. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”

Like many low-information sports-radio callers before him, Trump naturally transitioned into complaining that the league has gotten too soft.

This was inevitable. Bashing Colin Kaepernick and “disrepectful” NFL players who make “millions of dollars” is a conservative political gambit whose laziness is surpassed only by its effectiveness. The comments Trump made in Alabama are just a continuation of what he said at a March rally in which he bragged that Kaepernick didn’t have a job in the NFL “because [owners] don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” He got to the White House by stoking a culture war, and, after nine months of failed governance, he has no better alternative than to beat the dead horse he rode in on.

Although he couldn’t become an NFL owner, Trump assumes (probably correctly) that he now has sway over those would-be peers. NFL owners are Trump’s base—the rich men who will eventually benefit from the tax cuts he has long promised. Eight owners donated a combined $7.25 million to help pay for Trump’s inauguration. Trump knows he can push these men around on the issue of anthem protests because they’ve already given him tacit approval to do so. By blackballing Colin Kaepernick, the NFL’s owner class aligned themselves with Trump’s side of this fight long before he stepped on that stage in Alabama.

So far, two organizations have publically rebuked the president for his remarks in Alabama. New York Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch called his remarks “inappropriate, offensive, and divisive,” and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross released a statement expressing his disappointment. Until they say otherwise, it can only be assumed that the owners of the league’s 30 other teams stand with the man who may one day reduce their marginal tax rates. (Update, Sept. 24, 10:06 a.m.: Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank have released statements defending the players, and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan linked arms with players on the sideline of Sunday’s game in London during the anthem. They may not be the last.)

Trump’s opportunistic comments will spark more protests on Sunday, which was likely his aim all along. Players around the league have been taking to social media to make themselves heard, and the NFL Players Association released a statement arguing that “the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just ‘shut up and play.’ ” They’re right, of course, and the NFL and its owners could easily fix this problem by responding in a similar manner. But they probably won’t, as history indicates they’ll trip over their silk, NFL–logo–patterned Vineyard Vines neckties a hundred times before finally doing the correct thing.

Consider Roger Goodell’s lily-livered response, which neither mentions Trump by name nor brings up any of the specific issues the president brought up during his extended rant about the league.

To call that a word salad would be an insult to leafy greens. This is the language of someone who desperately wants to toe a line he’s clung to for far too long. The league should support its players and not its very worst fan, even if he happens to watch games from the White House.