There was already lots of speculation that NFL team owners were particularly susceptible to criticism from President Donald Trump about players who kneeled during the national anthem. Now sworn depositions are showing that Trump’s words had a direct impact on the way the NFL decided to change its rules on what players are allowed to do during the National Anthem. The Wall Street Journal obtained sworn depositions from NFL owners related to the grievance filed against the league by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick, who claims he was blackballed over the anthem protests.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that the president personally told him, “You can’t win this one.” The president said that the anthem controversy “is a very winning, strong issue for me.” And it isn’t as if Trump wanted his views on the issue to be kept secret: “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one,” the president allegedly said. “This one lifts me.”
Although NFL executives often publicly said they wanted to stay out of politics, Trump’s focus on the issue meant they couldn’t ignore the controversy. A key point came in September, when Trump said owners should say “get that son of a bitch off the field now” if anyone refused to stand during the anthem.
At least some owners say Trump managed to change the conversation. “I was totally supportive of [the players] until Trump made his statement,” Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins said. “I thought he changed the dialogue,” Ross added, noting that league owners would often share what Trump had told them privately about the issue.
The White House vehemently denies Trump was telling the NFL how to run its business, only expressing what he thought would be best for the country and the sport. “The majority of the American people agree with the president, love our country, love our flag and believe it should be respected,” an official told the Journal.
Trump’s role in the whole anthem controversy is key to Kaepernick’s grievance, which claims the NFL’s teams colluded to keep him unsigned because of his political views and his role in launching the anthem demonstrations. Kaepernick claims Trump was an “organizing force in the collusion.” And there was already plenty of evidence to suggest that may be the case, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl pointed out last year. Trump’s apparently clear role in pushing the NFL toward certain decisions likely won’t just help Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid also filed a grievance with the league and Trump is also likely to be the focus in his argument that the NFL colluded against him.
Last week the NFL officially changed its rules requiring players to stand if they’re on the field during the anthem. Trump celebrated on Fox News that the owners “did the right thing” but he insisted that it was “the people pushed it forward, this was not me. I brought it out.”