With the fall and another election season upon us, the one thing we can count on is a renewal of Donald Trump’s war on football. This has become an annual tradition for the president, one that showcases his true political talent—that is, his almost uncanny ability to align his own resentments and fantasies with those of his followers.
“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 asked a crowd in Huntsville, Alabama, seemingly out of the blue last September. Pausing while the crowd responded with chants of “USA! USA!” Trump then rambled into a longer, extemporized disquisition, sending out simultaneously a warning and an encouragement to mayhem, as is his wont:
You know, some owner’s going to do that. He’s going to say, “That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired” . . . that’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything . . . we stand for.
The “total disrespect of everything we stand for” was, of course, the protest against social inequality and particularly the police treatment of African Americans that some National Football League players had been making by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before each game. The protest had been started, virtually alone, by Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, back in the late summer of 2016.
Trump had occasionally excoriated Kaepernick for “taking a knee” at the time, but for the most part his heckling was subsumed in the ongoing racism and resentment of his presidential campaign. By the fall of 2017, Kaepernick was gone, quietly and efficiently blackballed by the NFL, and his protest movement was wavering. He had not been joined by many other players or opponents, and there had been reports by ESPN and the Washington Post (later denied) that he would no longer be kneeling during the anthem.1
1 Actually, the national anthem was not always played before every game. (For that matter, there wasn’t even a national anthem until Congress designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as such in 1931.) It only became a routine patriotic flourish during World War II. Today, sports fans routinely talk, eat, and drink through it, but as long as they’re standing up, no one minds! The networks often make sure it’s played well before the game actually starts, to ensure that they don’t have to waste valuable advertising time broadcasting it.
But Trump was not about to let the issue die. Kaepernick was just the sort of black athlete that older white guys love to hate, modishly tattooed (though his tattoos include at least two verses from Psalms) and sporting the largest Afro seen in pro sports since the heyday of Oscar Gamble. With Kaepernick gone, Trump could surely goad any number of other black athletes. He followed up his declaration in Huntsville with a typical barrage of accusations, delivered in his favorite mode and medium. The NFL, ran his hail of tweets, was “Weak and out of control,” full of “too much talk, not enough action,” and “ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!”
As if to make this dubious supposition a physical reality, Mike Pence, the vice president and Trump’s personal Renfield, was dispatched to Indianapolis in October to stand hand-over-heart for the anthem, then stride out of the stadium with his wife when almost two dozen of the visiting 49ers insisted on kneeling. Trump applauded Pence on Twitter, and once again urged the league’s owners to stifle freedom of expression: “You will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
Of course, no one would have been more surprised or disappointed if this had indeed squelched the protests than Trump himself. Instead, it set off a steadily escalating war of words and boycotts between the president, on the one hand, and coaches and athletes—nearly all of them basketball and football players, most of them African Americans—on the other. When it seemed that first the Golden State Warriors, National Basketball Association champions for the past two seasons, and then many of the Philadelphia Eagles, last season’s Super Bowl winners, intended to pass on the traditional champions’ pilgrimage to the White House, Trump furiously disinvited both teams. The response to his taunts ranged from the politely defiant support of the protests by the former basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—“I think it’s a great thing. This is what America is about. We discuss things and then we try to solve the problems”—to LeBron James’s wonderfully succinct tweet, “U bum.”
The NFL owners—most of whom had likely supported Trump’s presidency, some even openly—were thrown into a tizzy. Faced with a pending showdown between their players and the president—and much of their fan base—they mostly punted. Almost all of them issued statements expressing “support” for their players while deploring the president’s “divisive” rhetoric. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his star quarterback, Tom Brady, both open and enthusiastic supporters of Trump, expressed disappointment in the president’s words. The owners attempted to turn the whole episode into an exercise in corporate “team building,” with players, coaches, and front office alike linking arms and standing together on the sidelines during the national anthem as a sign of solidarity with one another. Even crusty old Jerry Jones, longtime owner of the Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team,” knelt with his players at midfield before standing for the anthem. “If you do not honor and stand for the flag in the way that a lot of our fans feel you should . . . then you will not play,” Jones maintained, while insisting that “this is a workplace issue.”
Actually, it was an issue of innocent or unarmed black people being killed by police and four hundred years of racial oppression, as Donald Trump understands down to his bones. Above and beyond any real sentimentality about the anthem or the flag, which he has taken to literally hugging like it is a helpless beauty pageant contestant, Trump understands just what his constituents want, and where they are coming from.
Nearly forgotten in his Huntsville outburst was a further Trump critique of the NFL, one much closer to the heart of the matter. Donald Trump doesn’t think enough players are getting hurt enough. “Because, you know, today if you hit too hard, right, they hit too hard, fifteen yards, throw him out of the game. They had that last week,” he pontificated, off on a seeming tangent in the midst of denouncing the knee takers, though no demagogue’s asides are ever really tangential:
I watched for a couple of minutes and two guys, just really a beautiful tackle, boom, fifteen yards [penalty]. The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him, they’re ruining the game. Right? . . . Hey, look, that’s what they do, they want to hit, okay? They want to hit [my italics]. But it is ruining the game.
Right there is the political philosophy of the Trump voter in a nutshell: self-important arbiters are foolishly protecting people of color from the consequences of their own violent tendencies. You can hear the same sentiments, about the game of football or about our society, in nearly any all-white barroom. But they are particularly noisome coming from our president, who has never in his life engaged in any sport with more physical contact than golf, and who reportedly does not even like to walk if he can help it, lest he use up what he believes to be his finite supply of physical energy. Trump’s tough-guy posing might be dismissed as just his usual pandering, save that his rant came just a few days after it was announced that Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots’ tight end, had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Hernandez had a long history of violence and brushes with the law, but in recent years his behavior had grown increasingly erratic and paranoid. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a friend, perhaps out of the delusion that the man was going to turn Hernandez in for the murder of two other acquaintances. Soon after signing a $40 million contract with the Patriots, Hernandez allegedly had shot another member of his entourage in the face following an argument in a strip club. While in prison, he hanged himself with a bedsheet; at the time of his death, Hernandez was just twenty-seven. His autopsy revealed that he had Stage 3 CTE (Stage 4 is the worst), along with “early brain atrophy and large perforations in a central membrane.” (CTE can be detected only through a postmortem examination of the brain.)
The sorts of behavior Hernandez exhibited have become increasingly common among both active and retired football players, and no wonder. As New York Daily News editor Andy Clayton pointed out at the time of Trump’s Huntsville speech: “The revelations about Hernandez follow on the heels of a study that found evidence of the crippling brain disease in 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were studied.”
The attitude of Trump and his followers—Hey, look, that’s what they want to do, they want to hit, okay? They want to hit—reflects, first of all, the separation of an entitled white-supremacist administration and party from the rest of a much more mixed America, just as America’s most popular professional sports today reflect the remoteness of their predominantly white and affluent crowds from the people of color who dominate the sports. More than 70 percent of professional football players during the 2017 season were African Americans; the NBA was 74 percent (with many of the whites foreign interlopers, often from what Trump would characterize as the “shithole countries” of Eastern Europe). In the eyes of Trump’s America, these people are here primarily for their entertainment value, to hit and to hit hard, and to keep their mouths shut about things like police murders of black people.
Closely connected to this white resentment is, as ever, the Trumpsters’ unwavering conviction that they have missed out on something, the old, “great” (and white) America that Trump has promised to restore. As usual, they don’t have a clue.
Football was once indeed a very different game. Until the Fifties, players often played “two-way” football—that is, on offense, defense, and special teams, often for a full sixty minutes a game. They also played with a great deal less padding than they do today, and what were basically just thick leather caps around their heads. Much as the modern boxing glove was supposed to decrease gore but actually made it infinitely easier to pound someone repeatedly in the head without breaking your hand, the modern football helmet turned players into human battering rams. Playing one-way football also allowed for the development of the sort of freakish physique that is now ubiquitous in the NFL—linemen who weigh 350 pounds or more, with bellies hanging over their belts, but who can run a forty-yard dash in less than five seconds. Players who increasingly injure themselves just by falling down, who look like so much of American livestock, purposely bred to be short-lived, walking meat vessels.
And like those other animals, their shapes are made tenable only by drugs. As Allen Barra, who has written extensively on sports and sports history, relates,
There’s no doubt that modern NFL players are over-pumped with steroids and other PEDs. And, perhaps worse, with painkillers that keep them from realizing when they are really injured and let them play when they shouldn’t.
For all that they are paid exponentially more money, in other words, today’s NFL players are exploited as brutally as ever. Nor is the exploitation limited to the players. The league’s longtime policies regarding many of its women employees would make Harvey Weinstein blush with shame. Ever since the Cowboys began to seriously monetize their cheerleading squad, in 1970, women have served as an ever-increasing revenue stream for most NFL teams. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a pop culture sensation of the Seventies in their hot pants, push-up bras, and boots, inspired their own TV special and two made-for-TV movies, not to mention countless calendars and public appearances. In return, they received minimal pay and any number of grossly hypocritical restrictions on their personal lives.
Since then, the money and the hypocrisy have only exploded. This spring, the New York Times ran a series of articles about NFL cheerleaders that made many of their endeavors sound perilously close to what the victims of sex trafficking endure. At a 2013 calendar photo shoot using the Washington Redskins’ cheerleading squad, officials installed the women in an “adults only” resort in Costa Rica, confiscated their passports, required them to pose topless or in body paint (though the calendar would not show nudity)—and invited the men in, at least those who were private luxury-suite holders and sponsors back in Washington, for a close look. Throughout the trip, the women were required to buy their own food and their own bathing suits for the shoot.
Washington, like other NFL franchises including the Houston Texans, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints, created an “alternate roster of so-called cheerleaders” who don’t actually cheer but “whose primary task is to charm spectators at the game”—sometimes in bikinis and high heels or other minimal costumes. The Baltimore Ravens dubbed these women the Playmakers and required full body measurements on their applications. According to the Times, the Redskins’ “ambassadors” worked both luxury suites and “team-sponsored tailgate parties, where fans were invited to chug beer. Intoxicated men would grab them and hug them . . . and make inappropriate comments.”
Most of this, apparently, is par for the course in the NFL cheerleader world, which the Times described as rife with eating disorders and laxative abuse (to qualify for the teams’ strict weight limits), and Big Brother–like monitoring of team members’ Facebook pages. The Houston Texans’ cheerleaders were paid $7.25 an hour to work an extra fifty events a year, and claimed they were “verbally and emotionally abused” by their female “coach,” who on one occasion taped a cheerleader’s stomach to make it look flatter. Other cheerleading squads won suits over poor pay and being made to pay for their own uniforms, makeup, and transportation. And according to the Times,
The Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, before the squad disbanded in the face of a wage lawsuit, said they were told to do jumping jacks in tryouts to see if their flesh jiggled, and had to attend a golf tournament for sponsors where high rollers paid cash to watch bikini-clad cheerleaders do back flips.
These sorts of abuses went on and no doubt continue in an NFL that had already become notorious for videos of its players punching their wives and girlfriends, often in public—a phenomenon aggravated, perhaps, by whatever levels of brain damage these young men have already sustained. One might think that the league’s runaway sexual abuse and exploitation, combined with the existential threat posed by the brain damage its players almost inevitably sustain, would be enough on its plate.
But the NFL’s first priority was to roll over for Mr. Trump’s pandering, with a May announcement that taking a knee or any other protest during the playing of the national anthem would no longer be tolerated on the sidelines, though players could choose to simply stay in the locker room. Whether this will provoke continued defiance from the players remains to be seen—to paraphrase Monty Python, what will happen if they don’t obey? Will they have to give up being brain-damaged in the afternoon?—but watching the lawsuits and simple human decency closing in on them, no doubt the club owners wish they could hide out in the locker room, too. They might find the rest of America there ahead of them.