Much in the manner of his peers among the heels of pro wrestling, Donald Trump finds an injury in an opponent and ruthlessly pounds away at it until the script calls for a weepy submission from the vanquished. And he’ll still toss the loser over the turnbuckle and onto the floor.
That’s where the NFL owners find themselves these days.
But the cold concrete nap looks like it might be a real coma.
The decision by many Eagles players to snub the traditional White House salute for NFL champions, quickly followed this week by the president’s “disinvitation” to the event, inflamed anew the divisive issue of the propriety of social-issues protests during the anthem.
Despite the fact that players who knelt or gestured did nothing to disrupt the anthem, the game nor the belligerent drunks in close seats profanely taunting the players, lots of football fans didn’t like it, which is all the president needed to aggravate and agitate, per his custom.
The recent decision by owners to require players to be “respectful” of the flag on the sideline, or else stay in the locker room — teams would be fined if players protested on the field — was a futile attempt at appeasement, the fourth misstep in a string of miscalculations that has put the NFL in the crosshairs of the the uproarious fight that the nation is having with itself.
While Trump initially hailed the owners’ nonsensical decision to hide the protesters as a win for him, this week he tweeted a taunt ahead of Monday’s silly replacement ceremony for the Eagles’ no-show: “no escaping to Locker Rooms!”
To deploy a cultural expression taken from football to describe inconsistent decision-making, Trump moved the goalposts.
If Trump is not satisfied with the NFL’s awkward attempt to find a middle ground, that means almost no one will be happy.
Numerous team owners, including the Seahawks’ Paul Allen, offered on social media their support of criticism by players who rejected the proposed sideline separation. That made commissioner Roger Goodell look the fool for saying there was a unanimous vote.
Most players who have spoken during the off-season were unhappy with the decision and the process, including Seahawks LT Duane Brown.
“I don’t like it,” Brown said after practice Monday. “I think it’s dismissive. I don’t think it’s ever properly been acknowledged there (were no players) consulted with or talked to about the matter.
“We are still discussing it to see how we are going to handle it as a team. But I don’t agree with it at all.”
Given the self-inflicted nature of the series of wounds, and the delight the president seems to take in afflicting the NFL, there’s no indication of a workaround that will let the toxicity fade — as long as Trump remains in office.
In 2009, the NFL asked, but did not require, players to take the field before the anthem in prime-time games, as they had been doing for regular games (the change was prompted by network TV’s broadcast-timing needs).
The NFL also wanted to wrap itself more tightly with the government and military.
The league subsequently began receiving marketing revenue from the Department of Defense for “paid patriotism” salutes, which included color guards, flags the size of Rhode Island, and flyovers of Air Force might. It was as if getting a military band to play the anthem louder correlated to some sort superior show of patriotism.
While no evidence emerged of a direct link between the attendance request and the sales pitch, by May 2016, the league had been shamed into refunding $723,724 from the DOD to taxpayers, funds that it said “may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts” during the years in question.
In 2011, during negotiations that created the current collective bargaining agreement, the owners and the players union were silent regarding sideline behavior during the anthem. That was not the case for the NBA and its union, which bargained away its right to protest social issues on the court.
Then in 2014, Trump very much wanted to be an owner in the NFL, an organization he battled 30 years earlier as an owner of a team in an upstart rival, the United States Football League. The USFL soon went out of business, thanks in part to misjudgments by Trump.
He still wanted in on the football action. After bidding $1 billion to buy the Buffalo Bills, Trump plotted to thwart a rival group led by rocker Jon Bon Jovi, who wanted to move the team to his native Canada. To discredit the bid, Trump used tactics by now familiar to many Americans, outlined in this GQ story.
Bon Jovi’s group went away, but Trump lost out to locals Terry and Kim Pegula, who paid $1.4 billion. Trump was sufficiently peeved to issue a typically petulant tweet:
Even though I refused to pay a ridiculous price for the Buffalo Bills, I would have produced a winner. Now that won’t happen.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2014
The Bills made the playoffs in 2017.
Think about that bid outcome for a minute: Had Trump succeeded in grabbing the NFL platform to fill his rapacious need for self-aggrandizement, he may not have decided to run for office. He still would be driving the NFL bats, but most of the rest of the world would be sleeping better.
To summarize, Goodell and some NFL owners set themselves up for this quagmire with decisions that betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that peaceful protest has played in advancing the values championed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) and the Pledge of Allegiance (“liberty and justice for all”).
Perhaps no one explained the situation better than famed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In 1954, amid the McCarthy red-scare drama that has parallels to today’s fear-driven swerve to authoritarianism, Murrow said:
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember than we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
NFL players who protest are breaking no laws. They act not out of fear, but of out of conviction and reason. They do not seek the popular course, but a just one.
They do not disrespect the military. Their protest is no more about the flag than Rosa Parks’ decision to sit in front was a complaint about the bus, or the colonial Americans’ decision in 1773 was a complaint about the tea in Boston.
NFL players are dissenting. The only disloyalty in this drama comes from a man repelled by the notion that much of American eminence came from its ability to prosper from dissent.