Big Game review: Trump, Kaepernick and the NFL as political football

Lloyd Green

This Town author Mark Leibovich switches from politics to the Pats and finds a game blitzed by powerful outside forces

<span class="element-image__caption">Arizona Cardinals fans wear masks of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Norm Hall/Getty Images</span>
Arizona Cardinals fans wear masks of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016. Photograph: Norm Hall/Getty Images

The National Football League bills itself as a non-taxable trade association that promotes the “interests of its 32 member clubs”. These days, it may need to add the title of America’s favorite tackling dummy. From the president to Colin Kaepernick to worried parents, the NFL is under a never-ceasing, bone-crushing blitz. Nike’s swoosh hits harder than any middle linebacker.

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The game pits Donald Trump, his supporters, predominately white owners and fans, against a labor pool that is 70% black. In the words of the late Tex Schramm, the Dallas Cowboys’ first president and general manager, to the late Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and executive director of the players’ association: “You guys are cattle and we’re the ranchers … And ranchers can always get more cattle.”

Into this morass dives the New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich. His book is an entertainingly informative bird’s-eye take on the country’s still-favorite sport in the age of uncertainty and never-ending culture wars. As Leibovich observes, professional football has become “a proxy for our national divisions”, adding that “no one buys tickets to watch a morality play”. Apparently, the choice is binary.

A Patriots fan, Leibovich chronicles the five-time NFL champions from the beginning of their 2014 season through their defeat in Super Bowl LII last February. He treats the reader to Tom Brady’s training regimen, football’s concussion problem, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ affinity for Johnnie Walker Blue in 24oz stadium cups, and steaming dollops of Trump. Make no mistake, smooth scotch goes down easier than a teetotaling president.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle saw Trump as 'this scumbag huckster' and a 'New York fast-talking kind of con man'

Trump is a man liked by some of the owners, distrusted by the NFL brass and reportedly disdained by Gisele Bündchen, Brady’s wife. Indeed, it was Bündchen who helped put the kibosh on Brady visiting the White House after the Patriots won Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Nor is Bündchen alone. As Leibovich describes things, Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner, took a dim view of Trump, and his take ultimately took hold at 345 Park Avenue, NFL headquarters. Quoting fellow author Jeff Pearlman, Leibovich writes that Rozelle saw Trump as “this scumbag huckster” and a “New York fast-talking kind of con man”. Even Tony Soprano got more respect from Johnny Sack’s crew.

Roger Goodell – the current NFL commissioner, a Rozelle protege and the son of an anti-Vietnam Republican senator from New York – is more circumspect in describing Trump. Still, drizzles of disdain are in the air.

When asked about Trump, Goodell volunteered that we live in “interesting times” and smirked when asked if he maintained a back channel to the president. For good measure, Goodell added: “Our focus is on what we do … Our focus is on the game itself.” Yes, we’ve heard that line before. For his woes, Goodell is comforted by $40m annually even without holding any actual equity interest in the game.

On top of the president wishing Ivanka Trump had paired off with Brady instead of Jared the Middle East negotiator, Big Game spells out that Trump always coveted an NFL franchise but was never viewed as financially worthy. Trump helped drive the USFL and his New Jersey Generals into the ground back in the 1980s; in 2014, his gambit for the Buffalo Bills went nowhere.

In particular, Trump lacked the requisite liquidity and transparency to shoulder a team. “Football owners,” Leibovich writes, “… get a much closer look at a candidate’s finances than electorates do.” Indeed, in a 2012 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, first reported by the Guardian, Trump’s liquid assets clocked in at $250m, nothing to sneeze at but also not the kind of cash needed to roam the halls alongside the NFL’s titans, who include Paul Allen, a Microsoft founder and owner of the Seattle Seahawks.

For the statistically inclined, Forbes pegs Allen as No44 on its rich list while Robert Kraft, the Pats owner, is 281 and the Cowboys’ Jones a mere 321. Trump languishes in 766th place, dropping 200 in a year. Indeed, in the midst of the 2016 presidential race, Kushner confided to Steve Bannon that his father-in-law was cash-strapped.

Executive time, the Robert Mueller investigation and Stormy Daniels have come with a hefty price. To paraphrase the president, vice and emoluments are expensive.

<span class="element-image__caption">Colin Kaepernick is sacked by Dwight Freeney and Ricardo Mathews of San Diego, in a San Francisco home game in December 2014.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ben Margot/AP</span>
Colin Kaepernick is sacked by Dwight Freeney and Ricardo Mathews of San Diego, in a San Francisco home game in December 2014. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

Actually because of its nuggets, yucks and giggles, Big Game is a dead serious work. Leibovich agonizingly depicts the toll the sport exacts on the life expectancy, mental capacity and health of those brave and talented enough to make it to the pros. The book records the reactions of NFL Hall of Famers whose short-term memories are addled and a front office whose relationship to brain injuries and the truth is all too reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s approach to cigarettes and cancer.

Ultimately, Leibovich is focused on the question of how long “peak football” can stay on top of its game. He offers no simple answer.

He notes that last season the NFL suffered its lowest Super Bowl viewership in almost a decade and its highest number of concussions in six years. Thursday night’s opener between the champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons saw the Nike ad narrated by Kaepernick air during the second half. Michael Bennett, an Eagles defensive end, sat during a portion of the anthem.

Even as the league’s revenues continue to grow, interest in pro football has declined. In 2014, nearly three in five registered voters closely followed it. Now the figure is barely half. Like organized religion, the NFL is losing its luster.

All this spells “another nonstop Christmas for the NFL doomsayers”. Yet as Leibovich notes, the “league just kept printing money to buy presents … They don’t make doomed sports leagues like they used to.” The fact that football legends Troy Aikman and Brett Favre have voiced concerns about their “hypothetical sons” following in their footsteps barely registers as a footnote on a balance sheet. Yet.

How does it all end? As the story fittingly concludes: “We await the replay.”

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