The youngsters will never believe it, but we recall a time when Americans could take weekends off from politics and watch sports. These days politics permeates the entire popular culture, though, and even the football stadia and basketball arenas don’t offer a safe space. Over the past weekend the biggest sports stories were all political stories, with President Donald Trump playing his usual leading role in all of them.
Sunday’s slate of National Football League contests featured the usual pin-point passes and fancy football and hard hits, but the most-watched highlights were the widespread protests staged by the players during the playing of the national anthem. In case you don’t follow either football or politics, the fad started last season when the San Francisco 49ers’ back-up quarterback, a fellow named Colin Kaepernick, knelt to one knee during the anthem to draw attention to the “Black Lives Matter” movement protesting police violence against minorities. All the polls showed that most Americans found the act disrespectful to the country’s most cherished symbols, but it gave Kaepernick a certain cachet among a significant percentage of the population, and a fame far greater than what he’d earned on the gridiron, and then a few other players in the NFL and the National Basketball Association joined in. All the sports talk and politics radio stations talked about it, but they eventually moved on to the next insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things sports squabbles.
Although Kaepernick had shown great promise in his first two starting seasons his performance had dropped precipitously since then, and when he was cut from the ’49ers no other teams chose to add him to their rosters for this season, but of course the story didn’t end there. Some pointed to his past signs of promise and argued he was blackballed in retaliation for exercising his free speech rights, while others pointed to the recent decline in his performances as the reason for his unemployment, so that argument was revived through the entire off-season. We figured that Kaepernick had his free speech rights to be a pretentious jerk but that any team owners who didn’t want to hire Kaepernick for whatever reason were entitled to their opinions, and we aren’t at all qualified to evaluate football-playing horseflesh, nor do we take much interest in the game at all these days, so we were hoping the whole fracas would finally fade away.
Which it might have done by now, if not for that speech Trump gave to a raucous in a packed Huntsville, Alabama, sports arena last Friday. The speech was quite a doozy even by Trumpian standards, and we urge any students of classical rhetoric to study it carefully and revise all theories accordingly. Trump bragged at length about hid electoral victory, assured the crowd the Russians had nothing to do with, basked in the crowd chanting “lock her up” about his vanquished Democratic opponent, had everyone lustily boo Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain, lobbed some schoolyard taunts at the now-nuclear-armed nutcase dictator of North Korea, and made a couple brief mentions of the Republican candidate for Senate he was ostensibly campaigning for, including an admission that he may have made a mistake by endorsing by the guy, who’s currently trailing in the polls to a more zealously Christian conservative. He also marveled at how Alabamans love him so much despite the fact that he’s a much richer guy than any of them “who lives on Fifth Avenue in the most beautiful apartment you’ve ever seen,” and regaled the audience in the football-crazed state with his gripes about the professional game.
First Trump complained that the game is becoming sissified, with attention-seeking referees throwing penalty flags for what would have been considered hard but clean hits back when the game was great. This probably would have been a talk radio topic on both the sports and politics shows, given the mounting evidence that players suffered high rates of debilitating and even deadly injuries to the head other and vital body parts back when the game was great, but Trump also revived the whole national anthem brouhaha from last year.
“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 said, with the language left unexpurgated here because that’s by now apparently one of those things that connect him with Alabama values, as the crowd seemed to love it. Trump predicted that the first owner to do so would immediately become the most popular man in America, where the most pressing problem seems to be a few overpaid athletes you might never have otherwise heard about kneeling during a national anthem, and even scored a few points about all the on-field rules the league has imposed regarding end zone celebrations and some right-of-center statements some players have made tried to make.
As you might have expected, and by now surely know if you follow either sports or politics, an unprecedented number of NFL players made some gesture of disrespect to the flag during Sunday’s games. Most of the players and coaches and whatnots on both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars chose to stay off the field during the anthem, several other teams chose to stand arm-in-arm during the anthem rather than with a hand over the heart, every team had some player making some sort of statement, including players holding a hand on a kneeling teammate’s should while pledging allegiance. Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn, the leagues only Muslim owner, joined his team in its protest, as did the Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose team name entails enough trouble already, and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. Thirty of the 32 owners issued statements expressing various degrees of disagreement with Trump, including a few who had been big money donors to his campaign, and not a one of them fired any of the disrespectful sons of bitches, if you’ll pardon an old Alabama expression.
Odd as it may seem to have a president of the United States engaged in a “twitter” war with the National Football League, it’s been a longstanding feud between Trump and those haughty football elitists. They first locked horns way back before the ’83 season, when an NFL franchise cost about $80 million and Trump instead invested a mere $6 million in the New Jersey Generals of the newly-formed United States Football League. The USFL was based on the sound idea that Americans love hard-hitting football but only get it in the fall and early winter, so a league that offered fairly well-played games in the spring and summer should draw a profitable number of ticket holders, but Trump had other ideas. He persuaded his fellow owners to move to a fall and early winter schedule, and when the networks inevitably chose to broadcast the superior brand of NFL football to sue the league for a violation of the anti-monopoly law and win billions of dollars.
Trump’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who’d previously worked for Sen. Joe McCarthy and various mafioso, won a verdict for the plaintiff, but the jury only awarded the USFL a one dollar in damages, given how ridiculous its new business model was, although the judge trebled the amount, but the three dollars didn’t keep the league from going bankrupt shortly thereafter. By now it’s obvious that Trump was scheming to win a settlement that would have him in possession of the an NFL franchise at the bargain-basement price of $6 million plus legal fees, didn’t much care which of his co-owners didn’t get in on the planned league expansion, and clearly came out the loser in his first clash with the NFL. Trump still talks about how he “hammered” the league, but he can also boast that at least there wasn’t a single New Jersey General who was seen disrespecting the flag on Sunday.
Back when he was signing two consecutive overrated Heisman Trophy winners to multi-million dollar contracts Trump boasted that he could have easily afforded an NFL franchise such as the Dallas Cowboys, but that he’d rather create a professional football powerhouse from scratch than be the poor sap who inherited a powerhouse and got no credit for its continued success or all the blame for its off-seasons. Thus Trump wound up losing an estimated $22 million on his fantasy football team, bona fide billionaire Jerry Jones wound up buying the Cowboys for $140 million and now owns what Forbes magazine estimates is worth $4.8 billion, and Trump surely feels some lingering resentment. He was turned down on a bid for the lowly Buffalo Bills franchise, too, and as they say on talk radio that’s got to smack.
Still, we can’t argue with the idea of standing up for the flag, and we suspect Trump has shrewdly that a vast majority of America does as well. The points these overpaid athletes you might never have otherwise heard about are making involve more complicated questions than most of them realize, and if they wind up with less policing in black communities they could very well result in the loss of those black lives matter, and it’s really quite ridiculous that football players who give one another head injuries for a living are so prominent in the discussion. Trump might just have picked a winning political battle.
The broader culture wars seem lost, though. That flag we stand for at every sporting event we attend stands for freedom, which is why we stand and take off the hats and put hands over the hearts for however long it takes, and merely roll our eyes and heave a sigh at the pretentious jerks who act otherwise for whatever reason they might have. If everyone took a similarly tolerant stand in this all too modern age we think the sports and political talk radio would be much more pleasant and enlightening, and we could all get on with the rest of that ready Monday-through-the-Friday-night-news dump, but there’s a lot to tolerate these days.
All the political talk on radio and television and “twitter” is screamed these days, and all of the screaming from the sports and entertainment and media and corporate and occasionally the military segments of the establishment is screamed at Trump, and even Trump can scream only so loud. Trump can gloat that the NFL’s ratings are down, and that all the flag-disrespecting has something to do with it, but there’s also a guilty feeling about watching all the head injuries all that annoying penalty-flag-throwing is trying to prevent, and the undeniable fact that the NFL is more popular than either Trump or the USFL.
This was going to be the year we completely gave up on football, but so far the Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Wichita Heights High School Falcons all look like championship contenders, so we’ll be obliged to look up those scores. If none of those work out we’re done with the game for good, and if we can somehow figure out how to escape politics we’ll be done with that as well.
— Bud Norman