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NFL Owners Have Always Been Terrible. It's Just That Now The President Is Worse.

Photo: Brynn Anderson (AP)

When it comes to marrying brain-frozen, heavily armed plutocracy with mindless and quasi-religious ritual, the National Football League pretty much got there ahead of everybody. The number of NFL owners whose general political and social outlook has progressed past the conventional wisdom of the Arthur Administration can be counted on the fingers of one hand, even if you happen to be a lobster. Going to the Super Bowl is now an experience like attending a high mass directed by Michael Bay. (The only thing to be said in favor of domed stadiums? No flyovers.)

Consider, for example, the trophy handed every year to the winners of the American Football Conference. The trophy, which may reside in perpetuity among the auto dealerships along Rte. 1 in Foxboro, Mass., is named for Lamar Hunt, the scion of a Texas oil baron and the founder of the American Football League, for which we all still give thanks. (Mister, we could use a man like Elbert Dubenion again.) But it is not solely Lamar with whom we are concerned here. It’s his family—specifically his brother, Nelson Bunker Hunt, and their monstrous pappy, H.L. Hunt.

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Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Jr. was an oil tycoon and as black-hearted a reactionary bastard as ever walked a fence line. He also led a personal life that makes that makes our current president look like a member of the Poor Clares. Hunt had 15 children by three wives, to some of whom ol’ H.L. was hitched covertly and simultaneously. Nevertheless, he remained a stalwart member of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, which is the church popes would live in if they really had ambitions, and he helped finance some Christian diploma mills. He also has a starring role in some of the wilder JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, Nelson Bunker Hunt, one of H.L.’s more ambitious spalpeens, was a member of the governing counsel of the John Birch Society and helped finance some front organizations that were used to finance the operations that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. But Bunker is most famous for his attempt, with brothers William and Lamar, to corner the silver market in the late 1970s. This turned out to be a pipe dream too far. The Hunts got caught and Bunker wound up declaring bankruptcy after being fined $10 million and fed into the IRS woodchipper. Not very long from now, the New England Patriots will defend the right to keep their hands on a trophy that immortalizes this pack of cutthroats.

Is it any wonder that Stephen Ross, whose net worth of somewhere north of $7 billion includes the ownership of the Miami Dolphins, would find comfort and warmth behind The Shield? Unfortunately, brain-frozen, heavily armed plutocracy married to mindless and quasi-religious ritual isn’t what it used to be. Ross’s main businesses, Equinox Fitness and its assorted franchises, including SoulCycle, are now subject to boycott because everything associated with this president turns to toxic waste. Ross planned to host a $100,000-a-head fundraiser for the president’s re-election out at his place in the Hamptons.

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However, Ross did not reckon with Congressman Joaquin Castro, who opened a new front in the 2020 election by retweeting a list of Trump donors in the San Antonio area. This led to the revelation about Ross’s fundraiser, and then all avocado hell broke loose. Mellows were harshed all over Hollywood. SoulCycle had a granola-lefty kind of vibe to it and now people were shocked to learn that it was tied into the White House grift in such a conspicuous way. So Ross was forced into damage control, at which he proved to be fairly awful. He argued that he supports the president because he gets a massive tax cut, and not because of the racism. And, somewhere in the SoulCycle empire, a communications consultant downs a handful of Klonopin with a jigger of cheap bourbon and waits for blessed oblivion.

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Now, the NFL has had some horrible owners. The NFL has had some owners with horrible politics. It also has had owners who were both horrible at being owners and horrible at being citizens. During the six decades in which the NFL has developed into the great gravitational force in the center of the sports universe, most of their bad political maneuverings went into blackjacking sweetheart stadium deals out of various municipalities. Beyond that, survey after survey has shown that NFL owners generally skew to the right politically; being part of the oligarchy, they could hardly do otherwise. More to the point, they put their money where their skyboxes are: Their campaign donations drift further to starboard than they do. But now the owners find themselves confronted with a problem they’ve never had before—to wit, a President of the United States who is a worse human being than they are by an order of magnitude.

They could joke with ol’ Dutch Reagan while he was peddling missiles to the mullahs, and with Bill Clinton while he was shtupping the hired help. They even could put up with Richard Nixon’s calling plays for the Skins, which is something that actually happened. (Nixon was better at designing a third-and-five than he was at conspiring to obstruct justice.) Being in the vicinity of criminal and/or horny presidents never impinged on the businesses from which they’d all made the money they needed to buy the NFL teams in the first place. Hanging with the president, any president, was not prima facie a case of publicity cholera. All that changed in November of 2016, and it’s only gotten worse.

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Donald Trump is as much of a sleaze in his personal life as H.L. Hunt was in his. He is as big a grifter as Jimmy Haslam. He’s as big at being both of these things as Jerry Richardson was. He’s as big a racist as George Preston Marshall ever was. And he is as incompetent a businessman as Leonard Tose ever was; Trump, remember, is the guy who actually killed an entire football league.

So now you have a situation where the president is attacking the NFL’s players, who are in open rebellion against him. Visiting the White House is now splitting championship teams down the middle between players who are Just In It For The Honor and players who’d rather run two-a-days on Mercury than get anywhere near Camp Runamuck. And the owners are now seeing the president’s unpopularity starting to bleed into their other businesses, which is where Stephen Ross comes in.

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Ross is not the first plutocrat to face the heat. Last year, people threatened to boycott Nathan’s Famous hot dogs if that company’s CEO hosted a fundraiser for the president. And he’s not the only current owner to get dinged for hanging out with Trump. Bob Kraft, the owner of the NFL’s pre-eminent franchise and as powerful an individual owner as the league ever has seen, is so tight with the president that the latter stood up for Kraft during the latter’s unfortunate encounter with the vice squad in Florida. In an interview prior to last year’s Super Bowl victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Kraft seemed to place himself squarely in Fox Nation. And Trump also is famously tight with Tom Brady, without whom Kraft’s arrest likely wouldn’t even have made the front page. But there’s no danger of a backlash against the Patriots, and Kraft’s other enterprises are nowhere near as prominent as SoulCycle is.

However, Kraft’s personal politics always have been liberal. He endowed a chair in Jewish studies at Holy Cross and matched it with a chair in Catholic studies at Brandeis. (Much of this was inspired by his late wife, Myra.) And, in 2018, at the height of the Colin Kaepernick controversy, the New York Times obtained a recording of a private meeting at NFL headquarters in New York at which Kraft condemned in no uncertain terms the president’s rhetoric on the subject.

The New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft pointed to another “elephant in the room.” “This kneeling,” he said.“The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America,” said Kraft, who is a longtime supporter of Mr. Trump’s. “It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”

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Ross, meanwhile, is the owner who said last year he “initially…totally supported the players in what they were doing” when they protested racial inequality during the national anthem. Right up until Donald Trump threw a hissy-fit over it, at which point he demanded that all Dolphins players stand at attention for the anthem.

Again, this is not a problem that NFL owners ever have had to face while dealing with previous leaders of the free world, and all indications are that most of them don’t have the faintest damn idea how to do it. Can Roger Goodell defend The Shield against the White House? Pete Rozelle had it so much easier. He only had to deal with Birchers and thieves.

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Charles P. Pierce is an author and writer-at-large for Esquire.

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