The day before Milwaukee Brewers minor league player David Denson announced he is gay, the first openly gay professional football player walked away from his sport. Michael Sam said he worried for his mental health. The juxtaposition of these two events shows just how far pro sports has to go to accept a gay athlete.
Somehow this is where we find ourselves in America in 2017: the president of the United States uses race to drive a wedge between football players and their fans while the world’s most-lucrative sports league caves to his tweets.
NFL players are sacrificing their brains for a league that will make at least $14bn off them this year. Many are shorting their memories, breaking their bodies and forgoing any hope of walking normally past the age of 45. The majority of them do not have guaranteed contracts and while the very best are paid well for the tiny window that is their professional career, they remain among the most exploited of American professional athletes – their sports lives dangling by the sturdiness of their ACLs.
For a time it seemed the NFL would support its players in the face of Donald Trump’s publicity grab. When the president told an Alabama audience last monththat he wanted to see NFL owners fire players who do not stand for the national anthem in protest at racial inequality, the league took a stand against the president’s intolerance. Owners and players kneeled. Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed disappointment in Trump.
Trump’s declaration he wanted to “get that son of a bitch off the field,” was that kind of moment that shocked everyone into a united stand for decency. Since the vast majority of the players who have kneeled for the anthem are African American, Trump was essentially saying: “Get that black son-of-a-bitch off the field” and everyone appeared to agree that Trump had crossed a line.
That is until the money was threatened.
The business of being an NFL owner is such a good one that no man or woman who holds a team among their possessions dares do anything to kill their golden goose. A decade ago, the league’s most valuable team – the Dallas Cowboys – was estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.6bn, and a third of the teams had values below $1bn. Today, the least valuable franchise is worth $1.6bn while Dallas’s worth has soared to nearly $5bn.
This is, of course, phony wealth, claimed only on the open market. The figures are buttressed with stadium palaces built on the backs of taxpayers, huge television deals and private marketing agreements sold against the logos of the teams themselves. With the teams’ outlandish values tied to an image the owners do everything to protect, it’s no wonder Dallas’s Jerry Jones said on Sunday he will bench any player who “disrespects the flag” by kneeling during the anthem.
There was good PR in standing against Trump two weeks ago, but the more the president turned his fire on the NFL – and as TV ratings slid – the more those bars wobbled on the value charts. Whether she meant to or not ESPN’s Jemele Hill drilled straight into the NFL’s most-sensitive nerve this week when she tweeted the best way to get to Jones was through the advertisers.
Hill’s words brought her a two-week suspension from her employer and more direct attention from Trump, whose White House has been pushing for her firing. But the league’s need to keep building its wealth leaves it forever chasing new pots of gold while trying to keep the appearances of opulence to the television networks and advertisers who throw billions its way. This is how teams like the Rams and Chargers actually grow in value despite playing before whole sections of empty seats in their new Los Angeles home. The simple act of moving to the nation’s second-largest market has made them worth more, making the other owners’ teams appear to be more valuable as well.
So when Jones snapped, Hill dared mention the advertisers and Trump tweeted about changing the league’s tax-exempt status, the NFL wanted nothing more to do with their players taking a public stand for social justice. It didn’t matter that Trump’s suggestion the league should lose a tax-exempt status was outdated by two years (the NFL gave that up in 2015). Any threat toward the owners’ sweet public money deals is enough to drop the iron fist upon dissent.
The players’ stand against a raging Trump seemed easy until talk turned to damming the rivers of cash that could help the owners fetch billions for their teams should they wish to sell. Suddenly Trump turned the defeat of a league united against him into a deft political win. Through this he has aimed his most vicious tweets at two African Americans: Hill and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the anthem protest last year to draw attention to racial inequality. Trump says his anger with the NFL is about respect for the flag and the country but the whole thing is coded in race and after two days of hammering the wedge he has managed to use race to turn the league against the players.
The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, surrendered peacefully to Trump on Tuesday when he sent a memo to all the teams saying players should stand for the anthem while adding some soggy language about respecting the players’ desire for social change. He said he was doing this because the controversy over the anthem is “a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues”. But he was really giving into Trump’s fire before things got ugly with the revenue streams.
The quickest way to breaking the NFL is through money and Trump, a man who once bungled the USFL’s certain court victory over the NFL, understands this well. He opened racial wounds, used his vice-president as a puppet by forcing him to leave a tribute to Peyton Manning and drove the country a little farther apart, but he won. He made the NFL crack. None of this has much to do with running a nation and yet policy doesn’t appear to be the point.
He got the leaders of a league that is 70% black to put those black men back in, to use a loathsome term, “their place”. The opportunity for the great national conversation about race – which was the whole point of Kaepernick’s protest – is fading. Trump can declare a win. In getting Goodell to bring his players to their feet he brought the NFL to their knees.
And no one is better for it.