The problem with the NFL is not just Donald Trump, but the greater dilemma that the league’s reason to be has become predicated on a labyrinth of lies.
The majority of the viewing audience is not young, hip, and loyal as hyped, but, even if fading, still largely reflects the majorities in red-state America that have no patience with gratuitous insults to the National Anthem and flag. The NFL apparently never grasped the political truism that you never insult your base and core supporters; sympathetic CNN talking heads and the solidarity of progressive political activists will not turn around sagging revenues, but will only contribute to them.
Outside the NFL bubble today, most of America, to the extent it still watches, now sees Sunday afternoon pop demonstrations as increasingly a farce, played out among players who appear neither exploited nor as exemplary model sportsmen, but rather as overpaid and pampered. Given the NFL’s enormous overhead, even a 10–20 percent reduction in attendance and viewing could send financial tsunamis throughout the league.
Nor do the protesting players come across as informed, brave social-justice warriors on the barricades of dissent, but as mostly unable to explain to their fans precisely why and how they are mistreated or why America is a flawed society that does not deserve momentary iconic respect each week. If players were concerned about violence and injustice, why not collect a voluntary 10 percent contribution from the league’s multimillionaire players and use it to fund programs that address systematic and lethal violence in inner-city communities such as Baltimore or Chicago? And if ethics and values are the players’ issues, why over the last decade has there been an increase in player off-field violence and arrests, often marked by well-publicized violence against women?
The owners, again fairly or not, are not viewed any longer so much as maverick tycoons and eccentric entrepreneurs or philanthropic regional family dynasties of the past, but rather as billionaire corporate magnates who invest their riches in glitzy cultural trophies and expect the state to subsidize their excesses. They are going down the Google/Apple/Facebook grandee path of losing their cultural appeal and, with it, their brand.
Sports analysts are no longer predictably informative and pleasant or at least humble, but often half-educated former jocks or nerds who imagine themselves pop Socratic philosophers as they so often talk edgy and snarky, and often down to their supposedly politically unaware audiences.
As the size and strength of players radically increased, the nature, rules, and culture of the game ossified — as if linemen were still six feet tall and 200 pounds and contact was the stuff of bruises and bumps. And the result is a growing level of brutal violence and brain injury that is analogous to a Roman gladiatorial arena.
The NFL is said to reflect a progressive 21st-century culture. But if so, it is hardly ethnically and racially diverse. Instead, the league is based on old-fashioned meritocratic criteria, and thus participation is based solely on athletic talent and skill-sets. That admirable trait nonetheless ensures that the NFL is antithetical to the entire progressive dogma of proportional representation and disparate impact that demand even quasi-public entities “look like us.”
And thus, despite the absence of racism or deliberate exclusion, elsewhere non-diverse businesses or government subsidized operations still must make the necessary inclusive efforts to diversify. Surely there are skilled Asian-American and Latino athletes who could be mentored and integrated into a lucrative and prestigious league whose players are about 75 percent African-American — a participation rate over six times disproportionate in terms of demographical realities. Again, these are left-wing mantras that a left-wing NFL apparently feels do not apply to itself.
The fan and viewer may not express such blanket disdain, but they sense all these contradictions and are well past exasperated.
And Donald Trump?
He no more created these crises in the NFL than he did the North Korean thermonuclear capability. If it is certainly long-term and strategically unwise for a busy chief executive and commander in chief, facing a host of inherited existential crises, to wade into a lose-lose NFL quagmire, he nonetheless may see it for a day or two as short-term and tactically advantageous. And he may be right.