Reimer: Donald Trump is winning his war against the NFL –– big league

Alex Reimer
October 13, 2017 - 11:26 am

Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK

When Donald Trump was campaigning for president, he promised his supporters there was going to be “so much winning.” The winning would happen so often, in fact, they were going to be “sick and tired” of it. 

That hasn’t exactly been the case during his first 10 months in office, at least in terms of significant legislative victories. But it doesn’t appear as if Trump is all that focused on winning over Congress, anyway. He spends more time on Twitter attacking Republican leaders than touting policy proposals. 

Above all else, Trump seems to care most about fanning the outrage and liberal resentment that propelled him to the White House. He creates boogeymen, such as the “Fake News Media,” and tells his aggrieved base their way of life is under attack. 

Trump’s latest target is the NFL, and it’s working –– to use one of the commander-in-chief’s favorite words –– “beautifully.” Last month, Trump said at a rally in Alabama all NFL players who kneel during the national anthem are “sons of bitches” and should be fired. The following Sunday, more than 200 players participated in anthem demonstrations. NFL owners issued mealy-mouthed statements of support and Roger Goodell even wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, linked arm in arm with LeBron James and Steph Curry. But Trump continued his barrage of Twitter insults. According to a Morning Consult poll, which was published in the New York Times, the NFL is now the seventh most divisive brand in the U.S. –– right behind MSNBC and Fox News, the two most partisan cable networks out there. 

Three weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats both viewed the NFL in similar lights. But now, there’s been a swift negative favorability swing among Trump voters. Trump has made his supporters loathe professional football, which is incredible, considering so many of them are red-blooded white men. 

And the league is backing down. 

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who effectively killed the kneeling movement when he kneeled with his team before the anthem three weeks ago, now says every player must stand during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In an interview, he thanked Trump for guiding him to this newfound policy. The President responded with a Twitter salute, and then went on to demand the NFL forfeit its tax exempt status, which happened in 2015. 

Jones isn’t the only owner who’s implemented a new anthem edict. Dolphins head honcho Stephen Ross, who had been supportive of the protests, now says players must stand because Trump has “changed the conversation.” That, of course, is the NFL’s fault. While all 32 teams issued statements supporting their players in the wake of Trump’s original assault, none of them mentioned what issues the players are highlighting. Colin Kaepernick started kneeling last year to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Those words haven’t been uttered by any NFL owner during this three-week stretch.

As a result, Trump’s been allowed to the frame the issue around respecting the flag and military. In a memo this week, commissioner Roger Goodell warned the current anthem dispute is threatening to “erode the unifying power” of the NFL. He went on to say he believes everyone should stand for the anthem, because it is important to honor the flag and country. 

It was complete capitulation. Trump thanked Goodell for apparently changing the policy. Goodell responded by saying it would be talked about at the league meetings next week. 

The NFL’s declining ratings have likely contributed to the cowering. The league wants to protect its bottom line at all costs. In a meeting with players two weeks ago, Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly reminded players to think about the NFL’s business interests. 

It’s worth noting there’s little evidence the kneeling movement has contributed to the league’s ratings struggles. As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, ratings are down for everything on TV, except cable news. The NBA, for example, had some of its lowest-rated games ever last year, too. 

Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ head of research, says nearly 203 million people watched a portion of the NFL regular season in 2016. While that was a five percent increase from the previous year, they watched for less amount of time, which means the ratings suffered. In other words, the ratings slide last year was largely due to changing viewing habits. 

Five years ago, there were barely 1 million cord-cutter households. These days, there’s probably around 7 million. Young people in particular aren’t watching TV, and they’re certainly not watching live sports. The average age of viewers for every major professional sports league increased from 2006 to 2016, with the NFL’s rising from 46 to 50.

But Trump has an amazing ability to turn perception into reality. He keeps claiming credit for the NFL’s sliding viewership numbers, and the owners appear to be buying in. 

Trump may not be accomplishing much in Washington. But he’s sure in control of NFL headquarters in Park Avenue. 

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