We need to take a quick trip back in time to the year 2017. Something important happened then that explains, in part, the limp response of the NFL to the pandemic.
The information stems from Colin Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL that was settled in February.
The story starts with President Donald Trump, on September 22, 2017, saying at one of his rallies that kneeling players were sons of bitches.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out!” Trump said, before turning to his TV tagline “He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
It’s understandable if you’ve forgotten how big this moment was since Trump has dragged the country into an unending sewer system of white nationalism, corruption, and infectious disease. However, at the time, this was a huge deal. Calling protesting players that name enraged almost the entire player base, and players who otherwise hadn’t joined the movement were inspired to do so.
Three days after Trump’s remarks, the entire Cowboys team, prior to playing the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, and before the playing of the anthem, took a knee. Joining them, on one knee as well, was owner Jerry Jones.
The image of Jones taking a knee went viral. It’s unclear when Trump saw it, either live or the next day, or between rounds of golf, but he did, and he was livid.
Trump phoned Jones.
According to a portion of a deposition from the Kaepernick collusion case, read to me by a source close to the proceedings, Trump essentially threatened the NFL.
“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Jones said he was told by Trump. “Tell everybody you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
Trump’s words to Jones were first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2018 and, again, I was able to confirm that is what Jones testified under oath.
Trump was doing what he’s excellent at, the only thing he’s excellent at, which is dividing people. In this case it was a Trump daily double bonus. He could use a mostly Black player base as punching bags to his followers.
Trump placed a similar call, I’m told, to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
The only time Jones has publicly mentioned his call with Trump was when he said “you know who reminded me of the game ops policy? Donald Trump.”
It’s difficult to believe Trump read the NFL’s “game ops policy.” I find it difficult to believe Trump even knows what “ops” means. If the policy was written in comic book form and had naked ladies in it, I’d believe it.
The phone calls weren’t just the neurons in Trump’s twitchy lizard brain misfiring. There was a frigid calculation to what Trump did. With two phone calls, he was able to corral the two most powerful owners in the NFL. It’s accurate the two men might have been aligned with Trump anyway. Jones is extremely right wing, and Kraft had been friends with Trump for decades. It’s also accurate that Trump spoke with other owners.
There’s no question, however, that while there are many rich and powerful owners in football, some even wealthier than Jones and Kraft, those two are the most influential.
Jones would begin speaking publicly, and harshly, against kneeling only days after Trump’s phone call. In October of 2017, he said publicly any player who “disrespects the flag” wouldn’t play for Dallas.
Thus after Trump’s call, no more kneeling for Jones.
Fast forward to now and the NFL’s sorry response to the pandemic, and a pattern emerges.
In the end, what the NFL did with the pandemic was what it did with Kaepernick. It allowed the more extremist elements to guide the NFL away from the proper course of action with Trump acting as a propellor. Once Kaepernick was proven right (as was inevitable) the NFL had to reverse itself and acknowledge that Kaepernick was correct all along.
Once the pandemic began, the league again let the more extreme, ugly parts of itself dominate, again being led by Trump’s ignorance, and like before, the inevitable happened. The outbreaks happened.
It’s fair to state, as my colleague Carron J. Phillips did, that Trump bullied the league into its lame plague response. But it’s actually worse than that.
As player and team front office sources have stated privately for months, a large swath of ownership believes as Trump does: That the virus isn’t that big a deal; that it won’t kill any healthy players; that overall its impact on the country is overstated by the media.
So the consideration of a bubble or postponing the season was never truly in play because many NFL owners (not all) believed as their boy Trump did (publicly at least) that COVID-19 wasn’t a legit threat.
This is obviously a different mindset than their NBA counterparts. There is also the fact the basketball owners see the players as true partners, and the NBA players definitely believed covid was a threat.
Yes, it was easier for the NBA to build a bubble because of fewer teams and players, but it was still far from impossible for the NFL to do it. I think if you swapped owners, NBA owners would have built an NFL bubble (or some version of one) and NFL owners would have refused to build a basketball version.
The NBA didn’t allow fans. The Cowboys had 21,000 for their home opener. Cases are rising in Tennessee yet the Titans are allowing fans into the stadium this week. The Eagles, Giants, Texans, Falcons, and Steelers are allowing a limited number of fans despite an increase in cases across the country.
The Titans’ players did something remarkably stupid and the league thus far hasn’t punished them. Why? The only true explanation is because the upper echelon of the NFL doesn’t believe what Titans players did is a big deal.
And now the Falcons are the latest team to deal with the virus following the Titans, Patriots, Chiefs, and Raiders, putting their Sunday game vs. the Vikings in doubt. The team said in a statement it was one staff member and not a player, and the organization closed its facility out of an abundance of caution.
Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said this week on a media conference call there’s a significant case increase in some of the communities where teams are located. That’s not stopping owners from letting fans into COVID-likes-this stadiums.
What’s become clear is a simple equation:
Many of the NFL owners are Trump…
…and Trump is many of the NFL owners.
And this is why the NFL is where it is.