This article was originally posted in March 2018 and has been revised to include updates for the 2018-2019 NFL season.
Those who know President Donald Trump best, and those who have followed the real estate billionaire closely since his rise to fame in the late 1970’s, will almost unanimously tell you the same thing: he is notoriously famous for keeping long-standing grudges. It’s fitting that the symbol of the Republican party, under whom Trump ran for President of the United States in 2016, is an elephant; there’s a familiar adage that “elephants never forget,” and that unquestionably applies to Trump in situations where he feels he has been slighted.
That’s why, for all the attention, controversy, and backlash — in both directions — it’s created, Trump’s crusade against the national anthem protests during National Football League games has perhaps very little to do with Colin Kaepernick at its core, or any other specific NFL player for that matter, regardless of their skin color or stance around racial tensions, police brutality, or American patriotism. It’s quite possible that the President’s central motivation behind his crusade is simply getting back at the NFL, because the former believed that his money and prestige allowed him access to essentially anything he set his sights upon, and the latter told him that he’d never be a part of the NFL, regardless of his fortune and fame.
As far back as the early 1980’s, Trump had his sights on owning an NFL team, because he not only saw that team owners were making tens of millions of dollars each year (which was a lot more money back then than it seems now), but more importantly, he recognized that NFL owners were viewed as one of the most exclusive groups of wealthy individuals in the world.
In 1981, Trump was part of a six-member cadre, led by former Washington Redskins head coach George Allen, that tried to buy the Baltimore Colts. But then-owner Robert Irsay rejected the $50 million offer, as he seemingly had his eyes set on relocating the franchise. In 1983, Trump purchased the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct United States Football League (USFL), and essentially blackmailed then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle by demanding that Rozelle either gift Trump an expansion NFL franchise in New York (which would have essentially created a new NFL team for the future POTUS), or Trump would move forward with an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Rozelle outright told Trump that the latter “will never be a franchise owner in the [NFL],” and true to his word, Trump followed through with suing the NFL, seeking damages of up to $1.32 billion.
In perhaps the greatest twist of irony in this whole feud: Trump actually won the lawsuit, but the court awarded Trump and the USFL damages of a grand total of $3.76 (yes, you read that right). That “victory” in court essentially led to the USFL going bankrupt, and folding shortly thereafter. Simply put, Trump won the battle, but lost the war, given that he lost his “stepping stone” professional football franchise (the New Jersey Generals) and the chance to potentially merge the USFL with the NFL, which was secretly his end game all along.
One would think that someone like Trump would realize they weren’t ever going to be welcomed among the NFL’s ownership group after taking the league to court, but they’d be wrong. He had set his eyes on being an NFL owner, and still had every intention of becoming one, albeit on his terms.
That’s why the self-proclaimed King of Debt passed on the chance to buy an NFL team in the late 1980’s, because he believed the team’s $104 million debt wasn’t a good deal for him to take on. That team was the New England Patriots, which current owner Robert Kraft has turned into a franchise worth $2.6 billion. In 2014, the Buffalo Bills came up for sale after the death of longtime owner Ralph Wilson, and Trump again threw his hat into the NFL ownership ring, but made an offer that was reportedly more than 35% less ($900 million) than what ended up being the winning offer by billionaire Terry Pegula ($1.4 billion).
As someone who’s always looked for ways to “game the system,” and as someone who’s always seen himself as “being bigger than the system,” Trump cannot tolerate the fact that he has the resources to buy an NFL team, but can’t seem to get the approval to do so. That’s why he’s taken another familiar adage, but has applied his own Trumpian twist to it: “if you can’t join ’em, destroy ’em.”
NFL viewership ratings were down upwards of 10% last season, compared to where they were in the 2016-2017 season, before Trump officially re-launched his crusade against the league, and they are expected to be down another 10% in the 2018-2019 season. Trump has lambasted the NFL for not being harsher on players who have conducted national anthem protests, and chided the league for being too cautious around player safety, thereby putting an inferior product on the field. More recently, Trump scolded Nike for featuring Colin Kaepernick in its “stand for something, even if it means sacrificing everything” ad.
Poor performance from teams in major media markets has contributed to the down trend in ratings in recent years (see: New York Jets, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, San Francisco’s 49ers), but the primary factor has undoubtedly been a Trump-led referendum on a league that has allowed its athletes to use the field as a platform for social justice issues (or anti-patriotism, depending who you ask). And while it is unfair to fully discount the opinion of those who are simply against the concept of kneeling to the American flag, Trump’s position seems less seeded in a sense of patriotism and more about his ego and disdain for the NFL.
That’s why, if you can’t see the invisible hand of Trump in the rebirth of the XFL, a football league that died after one season in 2001, you aren’t looking closely enough. The XFL will return in 2020 and intends to be a faster, more fan friendly version of football that will not give its players the forum to take personal stances on social or political issues of any kind while on the field. XFL owner and professional wrestling impresario Vince McMahon has always been friendly with Trump, and McMahon’s wife Linda is currently the Administrator of the Small Business Administration in the Trump Administration. McMahon’s desire to bring the XFL back to life has less to do with coincidence and serendipity, and more to do with strategy, given the current climate of professional football that Trump has helped create.
Even though many NFL owners — including Kraft (New England Patriots), Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), and Daniel Snyder (Washington Redskins), among others — are all Trump supporters, there’s still virtually no chance he’ll be an NFL owner in his lifetime. That means that a man like Trump, who’s made billions in the most famous city in the world, turned his last name into one of the most recognizable brands in the world, and been elected to the most powerful political office in the world, still can’t be a part of a club that he’s tried to join for the better part of four decades.
Given what we’ve seen from Trump so far, expect this feud to continue through this NFL season and for as long as he has access to a Twitter account.