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Donald Trump and the NFL's Unsolvable Crisis

What the president has done to the NFL is tone-deaf, purposeful division. But the league’s owners didn’t cover themselves in glory either.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How has it been only seven days since my last column? Since then …

— Carmelo jumped to Oklahoma City.
— LeBron and Wade reunited in Cleveland.
— The great Hugh Hefner died.
— Jimmy Kimmel killed the latest health care repeal.
— The ragtag Minnesota Twins made the playoffs.
— Tiger Woods admitted he might never come back.
— Another Kardashian/Jenner pregnancy happened.
— Young Sheldon became TV’s biggest new star.
— The NBA finally cracked down on tanking (sort of).
— Rick Pitino drowned in his own snake oil during one of the biggest college sports scandals in 60 years.

Guess what. The National Football League overpowered every story. It started in Alabama when President Donald Trump excoriated NFL players for protesting the national anthem, urged owners to “[fire] that son of a bitch,” and transformed free speech and a peaceful protest into a bonus episode of The Apprentice. Even if anyone with an IQ over 80 knew the Divider-in-Chief was exploiting patriotism (and America’s most popular sport) to distract us from a third straight Obamacare repeal blowing up, everyone lost their freaking minds. Many agreed; many didn’t agree. That’s all he needed. People are upset? Great! We were off.

The next morning, Trump doubled down by uninviting the NBA champion Warriors to the White House, followed by LeBron James ripping him in a tweet that started, “U bum.” This goes down as the bizarro version of Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers, too” defense, as well as LeBron’s most convincing GOAT argument yet. Seven straight Finals? Three rings? Four MVPs? A realistic chance at 40,000 points? The most durable perimeter guy ever? A hairline that regenerated itself? Modern science and technology could have propelled MJ to any of those heights, but he never would have challenged a sitting president with a biting tweet that was liked more than 1.5 million times. Advantage, LeBron.

And sure, it was amazing that Trump never fired back with something snarky like, “That’s why you choked in the 2011 Finals and quit on 2 cities — LOSER! SAD!” But he kept tweeting about the anthem, energized by a swelling group of patriotic Americans who agreed with him. Did they care that our president never bothered to excoriate white supremacists in Charlottesville in even remotely the same way? (Don’t ask.)

By Sunday morning, I couldn’t wait to see how NFL players would respond. I even watched those dopey pregame shows for the first time in like 12 years. My favorite moment: a betrayed Rex Ryan expressing disgust and regret for the time he introduced Trump at a campaign rally. Because it took this moment to get Ryan to turn on Trump. Of course, ESPN quickly promoted his belated social awakening on Twitter, less than two weeks after Jemele Hill’s anti-Trump tweets were treated like radioactive sewage. If only ESPN owned a website that explored the intersections between sports, culture, and race, maybe they could have thoughtfully explored that hypocrisy. (Sorry, I had to.)

When Sunday’s early games rolled around, every team’s kneeling strategy turned into its own somber reality competition. All that was missing were the judges and grades afterward. Every teammate and coach made a choice that belonged to them. Everyone else judged those choices, because it’s America, and we get to do that, too. It took one weekend for “Stick to sports” to die a bloodless death. I enjoyed this part.

Here’s what I didn’t love … why would anyone believe any owner as they stood on the sidelines, arms linked with their players, pretending they gave a shit? We’re all in this together, guys. What? Seriously … what????

You mean, the same guys that you’ve been treating like cattle since forever?

The same players who were deceived — repeat: DECEIVED — about results from various “concussions are really, really bad and football has lots of them!” studies these past 12 years?

The same players who place their well-being in the hands of hired doctors paid by the teams, who tell them to take dangerous narcotics and pain-killer injections that allow them to continue playing when they’re injured? And only because nearly all of their contracts aren’t guaranteed? Leaving them without any real choice?

The same players who pushed for a new commissioner who wouldn’t act like a hired hitman for the owners, only nobody listened to them?

The same players who lost luxury suite revenue because their union was too shortsighted to bargain for a percentage way back when, so all century they’ve been helplessly watching billionaires build “state of the art” stadiums (usually with public money) specifically to keep that revenue for themselves?

The same players who watched their retired brothers have a bogus quickie concussion settlement lawsuit rammed down their throats, knowing the owners would drag it on and on and on for years until half of them were dead?

The same players who KNOW FOR A FACT that some of these owners contributed up to a million bucks each for Trump’s 2016 campaign?

You’re all in this together? Really?

Somehow, Carolina’s Jerry Richardson took heat for not acting like a phony. He barely supported his players, didn’t join them on the sideline, and seemed like our safest bet to make a condescending remark that would make everything worse. The players settled the tension a few days later when Richardson invited the captains over to his planta — er, his house for dinner, then probably thought about reenacting Get Out scenes with them before deciding against it.

You might remember Jerry emerging as the biggest villain of 2011’s lockout, like a sneering cross between Buddy Garrity and Vince McMahon. He insulted Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, vowed to “take back our league,” and swatted away concerns about injury-shortened careers by reportedly telling Sean Morey, “You guys made so much [expletive] money — if you played three years in the NFL, you should own your own [expletive] team.” The odds of that geezer peacefully protesting with his players were somewhere between zero and zero.

But unlike some of these other phonies, Richardson stuck to his principles. He never wanted to stop being an entitled, wealthy asshole. Hey, maybe he believes in the power of the flag. Maybe he hates when employees express themselves. Maybe he believes in a world that has rich white people and Shad Khan controlling everything, and everyone else can exist as long as they keep their mouths shut. But Richardson’s reticence spoke volumes. It was one of the only honest outcomes of the whole weekend, right? In the words of Dennis Green, Jerry Richardson was who we thought he was. At least he owned it.

To be fair, thousands and thousands of fans jeered their kneeling heroes in every stadium. Others burned jerseys and tickets. Lots and lots and lots and lots of people took the Divider-in-Chief’s side on this. Totally fine. It’s America. Not everyone fully understood the reasons for the protests; once it morphed into a confusing football/unity/brotherhood moment directed at Trump, Colin Kaepernick’s original intent had been squandered (at least for one weekend). As Dan Le Batard tweeted, “Please stop calling it an anthem or flag protest. It’s a police brutality or inequality protest.”

Yes. That ended up being retweeted more than 126,000 times … and somehow that still didn’t help. Sunday’s games turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining, but the polarizing protests drove the postgame narratives. Trump tripled down on Monday, delighted to make miserable the same owners who buried the USFL and snuffed his run at the Bills in 2014. Petty people love revenge and he’s just about the pettiest person there is. He also loves causing a ruckus. He runs the Oval Office like he’s a sports radio host.

Coming up, I’m gonna talk about these spoiled NFL players who won’t stand for the anthem. So awful. Fire them all! Then, we’re gonna talk about that Puerto Rico place. Sad. Sad situation there. But now, it’s time for the 20/20 Flash.

That’s how Trump ran his campaign, too. But every modern American president realizes that their words aren’t just words anymore; every sentence, every paragraph, every rant, every expression carries enormous weight. They realize this immediately. And they realize this whether they’re good, bad, generous, nefarious, clueless, manipulative, comfortable, insecure, crooked, altruistic, or in the case of Bill Clinton, all of the above.

Trump went the other way. The staggering power of his newest platform gives him a big raging old-man boner. He can’t get enough. It’s like watching a 3-year-old play with a karaoke microphone.

Wow, is this thing on?! Hey! Loud noises! WHOA! MY VOICE! Hey, people are getting annoyed! I’m gonna yell louder!

The anthem routine — and that’s what it was: a routine — helped him feel presidential for once. For nine months, the job swallowed him up. He dusted off campaign blurbs, blurted hyperbole, made false promises, blamed other people, hired and fired people, contradicted himself, provoked dangerous dictators, protested an election that he’d already won, pushed failed initiatives, avoided traditional press conferences, insulted minorities either overtly or covertly, binge-tweeted, played golf, played more golf and inspired endless conversations about obstruction of justice investigations. He stunk at this job, and deep down, it sure seemed like he knew it.

In Alabama, Trump tapped into something simple and powerful. Maybe he couldn’t build a Cabinet, play the political networking game, come up with a decent agenda or negotiate with other loose cannons. But he could still rally a crowd with simple-to-understand rhetoric. Everyone should stand for the anthem, am I right? He doubled down, and when he felt the country fracturing because of it, he tripled down. He deepened an already massive divide. That’s what dividers do.

But it’s not like everyone else was covering themselves in glory, either. Many mainstream media members kept erroneously saying the players were “protesting the anthem,” exacerbating an already volatile situation. Sports Illustrated stumbled with its tone-deaf “A NATION DIVIDED / SPORTS UNITED” cover that spurned Kaepernick (you know, the guy who started everything and doesn’t have a job) but prominently featured Roger Goodell (you know, the guy who’s done less to unite sports than anyone this decade with the possible exception of Pitino).

Sports Illustrated

Three days passed, and as the old saying goes, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” That cover is actually hilarious. Check out Shad Khan! Who’s the guy on the right behind Goodell? (Come on, it’s Bruce Maxwell! Fine, I had to look it up.) Why is Aaron Rodgers on it? (Even he didn’t know!) What chain of events led to them saying, “Screw it, let’s bump Kaepernick, nobody will notice”? How does Goodell end up in the front row with his chest puffed out like he’s George Washington? It’s easily the second-funniest SI cover ever, trailing only this one.

Sports Illustrated

This wasn’t as funny: when Boston University researchers announced they are inching closer and closer to testing LIVING patients for CTE. (Here’s what Claire McNear wrote for The Ringer about it Wednesday.) Football might be going bye-bye soon. On Thursday night in Lambeau, when Davante Adams got coldcocked by a helmet-to-helmet hit and looked dead — not injured, DEAD — everyone processed the moment through a more sophisticated lens. You hoped that he hadn’t died. You winced at the three replays. You waited for the thumbs-up. (It came.) Then you thought about the fact that, 30 years from now, Davante Adams might not remember why he can’t remember anything. That’s football in 2017.

I spent the week in New York City for Advertising Week, as just one of many content providers hoping to grab the attention of media buyers, possible sponsors and advertising chief marketing officers. Millennials and Generation Z have them perplexed. They want to reach young consumers between the ages of 18 to 34. Well, how? Ever watch a game with anyone between the ages of 15 and 25? What happens once the game goes to commercial? Their heads pivot down. They start scrolling and texting and reading and watching. Shit, they might be looking down during the game.

It’s a second-screen world these days. Advertisers know it. Young people devour more content in more ways than ever before. They didn’t like the old rules, so they changed them. They don’t want to pay for 700 cable channels, and they certainly don’t want to watch boring commercials for three straight minutes. My 12-year-old daughter leans on Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube for pretty much all of her video consumption. She became addicted to Black-ish and Dance Moms on Hulu, not their original channels. She barely knows how to find an original cable channel. She adores overcaffeinated YouTube stars like Logan Paul and RiceGum. She regularly listens to the Jam Session and House of Carbs podcasts. (I didn’t make the cut.) She hops on Instagram, zips through pictures and devours quickie cooking videos. She texts her friends and hangs out with them on Houseparty. This is how she unwinds.

Well, these kids scare advertisers more than anyone. My daughter hits the demo in six years. How will they steal her attention? How can they seduce cord-cutters in college, or college grads who choose their Roku over cable? Young people want to control their own destiny as much as they possibly can. And they want to do it as cheaply as possible. They’re like Belichick working the salary cap.

So … how do you grab those eyeballs? And how do you convince them to squeeze you into their media diet?

The answer: You adapt. Any company that decides, “I don’t like where things are going, they were better for me the old way, we gotta keep it the old way!” is doomed to fail. You become AM radio or Polaroid or Rolling Stone or MTV or Tower Records or Blockbuster or ESPN revamping SportsCenter for the 250th time. Anyone running marketing for a major company understands this–astutely. Why waste millions on old-school ads that won’t reach the right people anymore?

Over the next few years, you’ll see sponsor integrations and commercials you never imagined–ranging from “Why didn’t we always do it this way?” ideas (split-screen commercials during NBA free throws) to “Wow, really?” (sponsored uniform patches) to three-second Instagram commercials to Logan Paul covering himself in sponsors like he’s a freaking NASCAR driver. But expect to see things change. Because they have to change.

I bring this up only because I can’t imagine football ever really changing. Look at boxing: other than cutting championship fights from 15 rounds to 12, that sport hasn’t done anything to protect fighters so that their brains don’t turn into Jell-O. Everyone from my generation who loved boxing had a moment in the 1980s — right around the time Ali started slurring his words — when we said to ourselves, “This is terrible, we probably shouldn’t have this sport.” And either we stopped watching or we kept watching. (I kept watching. I don’t feel great about it.) Football is reaching that point now; we saw it with Davante Adams.

And there’s no way to stop it. You can’t change football. You can dump kickoffs and punts. You can eject anyone for a helmet-to-helmet hit. You can keep cutting the number of practices. You can dump the preseason. But you can’t rewire trained missiles going 20 miles per hour. It’s not a contact sport; it’s a collision sport.

Advertisers have the luxury of deciding, “Things are changing … instead of doing A, B, and C, we have to start doing X, Y, and Z.” Football owners don’t have that luxury. Even worse, they don’t want to change. They want everything to stay EXACTLY THE SAME. Collectively, they’ve made tens of billions of dollars the old way. They don’t want a new way.

That’s why they leveraged the stunningly short length of the average NFL career — not once but twice — to force players to accept unfavorable collective bargaining agreements. They buried concussion research until they couldn’t bury it anymore, even bullying ESPN from participating in Frontline’s concussion special. They stifled individual expression until NBA stars became more popular and recognizable than NFL stars, forcing them to begrudgingly (and awkwardly) change course. They effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick. And when a president who many of them supported — with their money — threatened their business last weekend, they chose to unite with their players for a few hours. Like they give a shit.

You won’t see nearly as many protests this weekend. It’s bad for business. You won’t see Colin Kaepernick, either. But you’ll see a league heading for a reckoning–maybe not this weekend, but someday, and sooner than we think. Football is going down. So is Trump as soon as this Mueller investigation finishes. It’s actually perfect that they’re feuding. They can ride off the cliff together.

My picks for Week 4 …

Rams (+6.5) over COWBOYS
BUCS (-3) over Giants
49ers (+7) over CARDINALS
BRONCOS (-3) over Raiders

We’re placing $550 to win $500 on each game. Whatever.

Last Week: 1–2, -700
Season: 5–4, +105