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ATLANTA — Donald Trump has been a thorn in the side of the National Football League throughout his presidency.
He most famously used the visual of players kneeling for the national anthem over social justice concerns and police violence as a wedge issue to rile up his supporters. He called for a boycott of the league and routinely brought Colin Kaepernick back into the news when the controversy had naturally faded from everyday conversation.
On Sunday, Trump hit the league where it really might hurt – bringing up player safety as a reason he does not favor his own son, 12-year-old Barron, playing the game at the youth level.
“I would have a hard time with it,” Trump said in in an interview scheduled to air during no less than CBS’s Super Bowl pregame show.
While the Kaepernick issue no doubt rattled the NFL, that was always going to be a short-term flare-up. Television ratings have returned to form and the story has struggled to retain relevancy, especially as the quarterback has remained unsigned, mostly likely by NFL owner choice.
Dwindling participation numbers in the youth ranks and general distaste that the game is too violent for modern society, though, is the long-term threat to the NFL’s business that it takes extremely seriously.
The league has multiple initiatives – from the “Play 60” campaign to safety education programs designed for parents, especially concerning mothers – that are designed to keep the pipeline of talent coming for generations.
Now here is the President of the United States and a parent himself explaining in an interview that will generate a huge audience of football fans that he has serious concerns about football due to the on-field violence that it produces.
“If he wanted to? Yes. Would I steer him that way? No, I wouldn’t,” Trump said when asked if he’d allow Barron to play. There is no indication that Barron does play football at the youth level.
“I just don’t like the report that I see coming out having to do with football,” Trump continued. “I mean, it’s a dangerous sport and I think it’s … really tough. I thought the equipment would get better, and it has. The helmets have gotten far better but it hasn’t solved the problem.
“So, you know, I hate to say it because I love to watch football,” Trump said. “I think the NFL is a great product, but I really think that as far as my son, well, I’ve heard NFL players saying they wouldn’t let their sons play football.”
It is certainly possible that Trump could reverse course and say the opposite tomorrow or even sign his kid up for a team. He previously ripped the modern NFL and its players for being weak due to all the penalties being called on illegal tackles.
“Football has become soft like our country has become soft,” Trump said in 2016.
Regardless, this is the message on the NFL’s biggest day of the year and the league will undoubtedly wince at the comments.
It’s possible Trump was purposefully trying to harm the NFL with his comments; he’s feuded with the league since his attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills fell through. It’s probably more likely he was just speaking as a parent – he’s hardly alone in concern over head injuries, as well as other injuries with young players.
Football participation in high school football continues to decline in most parts of the country. In California there were 103,474 high school players in 2013 and just 94,286 in 2017 – a decline of 8.9 percent according to numbers compiled by the San Jose Mercury News.
While some states such as Texas and Florida have seen steady if even slightly increased participation at the high school level, others are falling significantly. Rosters are smaller, schools are fielding unified squads and some, especially in rural locations, can’t handle 11 v. 11 rosters anymore. Even Ohio has seen a 4 percent drop (44,431 to 42,637) over the last five years.
And youth coaches say it’s only worse at the younger level, and that will slowly trickle up to high school.
No, the NFL is not about to close down because of this or lack of brilliant talent that excites fans. It’s not a good thing for business though, especially in the coming decades. Owners have billions invested into the sport. They can weather Kaepernick. A long, slow decline is another thing.
It’s tough enough to have Trump voice concerns about the danger of the game. It’s worse for the NFL to have him dismiss the NFL’s argument that improved equipment and rules are making the game safer to play. Other than going to flag football, there isn’t too much more the NFL can do.
Football is a uniquely American sport and Super Bowl Sunday is a uniquely American “holiday” of sorts.
Here, for the first time, is the political leader of America saying it isn’t suitable or safe enough for his family to play. President Barack Obama previously stated that if he had a son, he’d have to think “long and hard” about letting him play football. Trump took it to the next step.
As Trump comments go, it may not be as fiery as another Colin Kaepernick attack or deeming protesting players as “sons of bitches.”
Within the NFL, though, it is even more concerning.
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