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Just over three years ago, when the NFL found itself in the teeth of a heated debate over national anthem politics, social justice protests and building racial tension, one of the wildest assertions in NFL history spilled into the middle of a U.S. Senate committee hearing in Washington.
It was a September 2017 revelation that nobody in the league office could have predicted from any political hearing, let alone one featuring testimony from the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The NFL was quickly learning that blindside moments in the Donald Trump presidency would be jarring and frequent. They could materialize from stream-of-conscious tweets, off-the-cuff interviews with a friendly-confines cable news network, impromptu meetings with reporters on the White House lawn or even via a surprise dispatch of Vice President Mike Pence to an NFL game, just so he could feed the news cycle with a post-anthem walkout.
But nothing was like the surreal moment late in September 2017, when just days after Trump had verbally attacked protesting NFL players in an Alabama rally — infamously labeling them “son of a bitch” — a Republican senator revealed during congressional testimony that the league had something else to worry about. There was a subversive element sweeping in behind Trump on social media like a typhoon.
According to Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, intelligence reports shared with congressional leaders claimed that Russian bots were using social media to amplify and drive both sides of a raging debate over protesting NFL players. The goal? Splinter America. The prominent tools? The NFL and a wave of players whose social consciousness were sparked by the kneeling protests of Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 season.
As Lankford put it during a September 2017 hearing with intelligence officials, “We watched even this weekend, the Russians and their troll farms and their Internet folks, start hashtagging out ‘take a knee’ and also hashtagging out ‘Boycott NFL’. … [Trying] to raise the noise level in America, to try to make a big issue an even bigger issue as they’re trying to just push divisiveness in the country. We’ve continued to be able to see that. We will see that again in our election time.”
For the NFL and its team owners, it was an inexplicable development. Not only did the league have to worry about Trump and his saber-rattling, but it was also getting pulled into a spin cycle of sabotage, one driven by a foreign invasion on social media, according to intelligence officials. And in the middle of all this, Trump was directly leaning on some NFL franchise owners. He openly talked about discussions with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. A flight on Air Force One by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft became a prominent talking point. Political contributions from both of those men, along with a swath of other team owners, became a hot-button issue in the middle of a collusion grievance brought against the league by Kaepernick.
All of this is important context heading into Tuesday’s presidential election. The fall of 2017 was the start of a long, tumultuous time for NFL franchise owners. They had to learn how to survive and thrive under a president who cared less about the league as a business and more about what it meant for political capital. Yet here we are, with franchise owners having figured out how to survive under Trump as a collective unit — and maybe not as anxious for change as many of the players who make up the work force.
This is an awkward moment for the NFL, defined by strained contradictions and uneven messaging. It’s a reality that makes it fair to question whether Trump has really been a big enough problem for the league’s owners to really want him out of office, leaving many of the players who are lobbying for change to deal with what comes next if that desired shakeup doesn’t materialize.
These are NFL’s mixed messages in election year
On one hand, club owners are funding one of the strongest voting initiatives in the history of any sports league. On the other hand, many of the same team owners overwhelmingly support a Republican Party — by a 9-to-1 ratio over Democrats, according to opensecrets.org — that is signaling an intent to strike down voting results that don’t return Trump to the White House.
On one hand, the NFL’s league office and a number of teams are supporting Black Lives Matter, social justice movements and protests. On the other hand, a swath of team owners continue to support Trump’s campaign for reelection, despite Trump repeatedly battering the league’s stance on social justice protests.
On one hand, the NFL would like to be free of Trump’s megaphone, which has repeatedly framed the league as a flailing business in a state of decline. On the other hand, no group of billionaire sports franchise owners collectively benefitted more from Trump’s tax revisions in 2016 than those in the NFL.
Throw all of this into one political soup, and you get a league that has taken beatings from the president when it serves him best, but never suffered enough to completely turn on him. Ownership money and support still flows in the same direction it did when Trump won election in 2016. The only thing that has happened between now and then was the NFL learning a lesson that the best way to survive Trump was to not engage him at all.
Lesson No. 1 started with that whole Russian bot cycle in 2017 that thrust the NFL into the center of racial division and left the league fumbling for a way out. Team owners were unprepared for a public relations inferno they never saw coming, while also completely ignorant to some of the foreign influences that were apparently driving it.
That latter point was addressed again during an October episode of “The Lincoln Project” podcast by a pair of prominently wired-in guests: former head of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden and former CIA Russian operations chief John Sipher.
“About two or three years ago, Kaepernick — the Russians liked that [issue] a lot,” Hayden said. “America was all [up] in arms. It was awful. And the president did that.”
Added Sipher: “When [Russian bots] see something as simple as Americans fighting over Kaepernick kneeling at a football game, they understand that [it] creates friction and anger between people in the United States. To [the Russian bots], that’s just candy.”
What was candy to Russian subversives was arsenic to a league that wasn’t used to being under such massive political and social media scrutiny. Not even the league’s policies on domestic violence or concussions spiraled out of control as quickly as Trump’s attacks on the NFL and the ensuing public relations firestorm that followed.
As leaked meeting tapes between the NFL and Players Coalition would later reveal, team owners were flummoxed over how to deal with the president’s attacks. Appeasement seemed to be the only route, leading the league down a long, winding and bumbling path that ultimately ended with the NFL doing essentially nothing about player protests. Trump’s rhetoric had largely become white noise to NFL fans.
Trump’s ability to be bad for business waned, largely because the league figured out that it didn’t have to engage him if it didn’t want to. And so long as Trump’s tongue was worse than his monetary policy, perhaps the league could play both sides of the fence by supporting a social agenda publicly, while letting team owners do their heavy political lifting for Trump privately.
This is how you get that 9-to-1 donation ratio to the Republican Party among team owners when a large portion of the players are so vocally in opposition of the party’s social justice ideals. You just operate quietly and keep your mouth shut.
Refusing to engage Trump on hot-button issues has benefitted NFL
That’s what some of the NFL’s team owners have done. Embrace the players publicly, which is good for public relations. Support Trump and his party privately, which is good for business and the bottom line. It’s an awkward duality, but worth the effort, especially given the continual rise of franchise values and personal net wealth of NFL team owners over the past four years.
This is why they endured the insanity of Russian bots and Kaepernick strife that has never gone away. And why they took criticisms of any perceived alignment with a divisive leader like Trump, whether his friendship is with club owners, players, coaches or executives. It’s why they ignored the shots Trump has taken at the NFL’s television ratings, the on-field product, the commissioner, the team owners and the players. It’s why they took the embarrassment of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson — who has been Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom — getting embroiled in an allegation that Trump leaned on him to deliver the British Open to one of his golf courses. It’s why they rode out the Trump fundraising controversy that engulfed Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who ultimately had to step down from the NFL’s social justice committee
You do all of this for one reason: Four years after Trump arrived in office, what has really gotten worse for the team owners? If not for the pandemic, the financial trajectory of the league in 2020 was heading for a multi-year rebound that would have far exceeded the league’s value at the moment Trump won election.
It’s worth noting all of this happened during an era when franchise owners were forced to confront their relationship with players and the realities of the communities many of them came from. In terms of public relations value, it was a net positive, giving the NFL a chance at perceived redemption by embracing the change sweeping through America over the spring and summer.
Through the political awkwardness, players’ strife and a pandemic, the NFL’s money over the past four years will be a remarkable net positive. Weathering Trump and ultimately ignoring him hasn’t been bad for business. For team owners, that’s what matters. And for players, that might be a contradiction they’re forced to live with if he’s reelected.
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