Read: Trump’s divisive and relentless politicization of the NFL
“The helmets have gotten far better but it hasn’t solved the problem,” Trump said. “So, you know, I hate to say it, because I love to watch football. I think the NFL is a great product, but I really think that as far as my son—well, I’ve heard NFL players saying they wouldn’t let their sons play football. So it’s not totally unique, but I would have a hard time with it.”
This is quite a reversal for Trump, who had a different opinion of the NFL back in 2016, probably because it suited his political interests and played to his tough-guy persona. After a woman fainted at one of his campaign events in Lakeland, Florida, and later returned, Trump said, “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions—‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”
“Football has become soft like our country has become soft,” Trump declared at another 2016 rally. “The outcome of games has been changed by what used to be phenomenal, phenomenal stuff. Now these are rough guys, these are rough guys. These guys—what they’re doing is incredible, but I looked at it and I watched yesterday in particular. So many flags, right? So many flags.”
But that was then. In the intervening two years, the league has squandered its credibility and dignity just to keep the president from throwing temper tantrums about the sport. And now, on Super Bowl Sunday, Trump points out the dangers of playing football.
There are countless examples of how Trump’s loyalty runs only in one direction. The revolving door at the White House is perfect proof of that. Appeasing Trump’s ego doesn’t seem to be a sound long-term strategy, because Trump seizes on opportunities to gain political capital, paying no mind to collateral damage.
Conor Friedersdorf: How NFL players can avoid playing into Trump’s hands
Trump has gotten everything he’s wanted out of this tenuous truce with the NFL. The Los Angeles Times reported that the NFL ingratiated itself with Trump after the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft reached out to the president, a longtime friend, for assistance in forcing Canada to stop airing American Super Bowl ads so that broadcasters could sell ads for the Canadian market, maximizing the league’s revenues. Just how important the matter was or how much the NFL actually needed Trump’s help are open questions, but when Trump renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, he was able to fix the NFL’s problem. Naturally, Trump couldn’t wait to brag about coming to the NFL’s rescue, puffing up his image as a master negotiator.
“I did them a big favor in negotiating the USMCA [United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement], which is basically the replacement to NAFTA, which is one of the worst trade deals ever made,” Trump told CBS. “And I said to Canada, ‘Look, we have a great American company known as the NFL,’ and they were being hurt and treated unfairly—the NFL—by Canada for a long time. And I said to Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, who was very nice about it and really understood it, ‘I hope you can settle the difference immediately and fast.’ And they did. So I did the NFL a big favor, as a great American company, and they appreciated it. And Roger Goodell—this is a dispute that has gone on for years. Roger Goodell called me and he thanked me.”