One day during the 2017 offseason, I went to Paul Brown Stadium to interview Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown. Like a lot of grandfathers, Brown enjoys reading history books. At the stadium, his all-glass office is ringed in bookshelves that run partway up the walls, though not so far that they obscure a dazzling view of the Ohio River.
Jack Brennan, who was then the Bengals’ head flack, had encouraged me to mention that I was writing a book about presidents and the books they’d written, as a way to break the ice with Brown. I followed the play call, and Brown indeed warmed right up. But then he asked me something: “It was always my side’s belief that Obama didn’t write his book. Tell me what your view of that is.”
I was honestly stunned. I knew the birther-ish theory—that a desperate Obama had convinced Bill Ayers to ghostwrite Dreams from My Father—but I didn’t expect to hear it from an NFL owner, a man with an Ivy League degree and a billion-dollar asset. I especially didn’t expect to hear it while my recorder was blinking on the desk between us. But there we were in Brown’s office, with me arguing that Obama really did write his book and Brown countering that Ayers was “quite literate.” At one point Brennan said, “I never knew people were even making these horrible accusations against Obama.”
Brown smiled. “It just shows you how out of touch Jack is.”
That interview was the first thing I thought of when I heard about the NFL’s new policy on players protesting during the national anthem. Lots of people have been framing this as “a win” for Trump, and any second now our president will log on and do the same. (He’s already crowing about the NFL’s move.) But this policy isn’t a win for Trump. It’s a win for NFL owners—a group of people who are more than conservative enough to generate ideas like this on their own.
Most owners would never talk politics as frankly as Brown did that day, but there’s another way to gauge their beliefs: their checkbooks. NFL owners donate much more to Republican candidates and causes than to Democratic ones, a trend that goes back decades and is getting more pronounced. This is particularly true of the biggest spenders like Texans owner Bob “inmates” McNair, who was one of several owners to donate heavily to Trump’s inaugural committee. Bucs owner Ed Glazer even hosted a recent reelection fundraiser for Trump.
In Ohio, Brown has consistently given to GOP candidates, though he’s never approached McNair’s largesse. (In this, as in all other things, Brown is a cheapskate.) Still, he helpfully illustrates how far-right owners can be—and not just through his literary theories. As Mike Florio reported last month, Brown met personally with Eric Reid and quizzed him about his plans for future anthems. Reid wouldn’t commit to standing or kneeling, and ultimately the Bengals declined to make him an offer.
This mindset explains at least part of the league’s new policy. Sure, some owners may be pushing it because they think it’s good for business. But others, including Brown and Glazer and McNair, are probably just replacement-level Fox & Friends viewers. During our interview, Brown also brought up the way the NFL had condemned socially conservative legislation like Texas’s “bathroom bill,” which would have restricted the restrooms transgender people could use. “Is it their place to speak for me?” Brown asked of the league office. “I’m part of the NFL. I’m not saying that. I didn’t authorize that.”
Blasting “bathroom bills” was arguably a smart business decision—that’s why so many corporations besides the NFL did precisely that. But Brown disliked it because of his sincere political beliefs.
I suspect those motives also apply to the anthem policy. Maybe some owners are just pragmatic capitalists. But it seems equally likely that some of them genuinely believe that the protests disrespect the troops and the flag. It’s the simplest way to scan recent comments like McNair’s (“We all need to respect our flag and respect our country”) or Steelers owner Art Rooney’s (“I think everybody understands what it means to be respectful during the anthem”—which, in his case, means players not even linking arms).
When it comes to the anthem, maybe these owners just mean what they say. Maybe they didn’t do this for Trump. Maybe they did it for themselves.