Leibovich: They could be right. At least last year the numbers seemed pretty solid. It’s not dissimilar to George Herbert Walker Bush and the Pledge of Allegiance. He made a big wedge issue out of that. These are Lee Atwater issues in a big way.
Strauss: With the scandals mounting this month, Trump returned to the culture war with the fund-raising email about ESPN and the anthem. Is Trump’s main 2020 campaign platform just going to be “Football!”?
Leibovich: [Laughs] Yeah, pretty much. And it’s not going to wait that long. After Labor Day, what else does he have? He’s not going to pass another tax cut, he’s not going to repeal Obamacare, the wall isn’t magically going to get built. Football season is a weekly thing. Maybe there’ll be a lot of coverage of how many players on the Seahawks are raising their fists or kneeling. And then he gets to talk about this every Sunday leading into the midterms.
Strauss: Trump has a complicated history with the NFL. He wanted into the league in the 1980s when he owned a team in the USFL and was basically told to shove off. Then he had interest in buying the Buffalo Bills a few years ago. How much of his preoccupation with the league is personal?
Leibovich: It’s always a big part with him. He has a lot of personal grievances that he’s been not at all shy about trying to exorcise or act according to—whether it’s feeling spite from Amazon, feeling spite toward NBC and possibly getting involved in their Comcast merger. The NFL is just another private American entity that he feels slighted toward that he hasn’t been shy about using the powers of the presidency to go after.
Strauss: You describe Goodell as being a very political animal. Does he remind you of any politician?
Leibovich: Someone at the league, pretty high up, said this to me. He’s a lot like Mitt Romney, the son of a father he revered, son of a politician who was revered among a certain circle of people who worked their consciences in the 60s. George Romney was a forward-looking Republican on civil rights; Charles Goodell, same thing on Vietnam. And [Roger and Mitt] have this patrician worship. Then Mitt Romney comes along and he’s not as good a politician [as his dad] and is not as seamless a figure of conscience. He’s a flip-flopper and is not a natural at all. And yet he’s been working his whole life to be just like Dad and he gets to some pretty high places, but the suit never fully fits. Roger Goodell is sort of the same thing. He made it to the top of the league … but he’s uncomfortable in his own skin.
Strauss: Is there a politician who would make a good NFL commissioner?
Leibovich: Condi Rice and Barack Obama—I think both could be tremendous. But I don’t think you could get them. Football has become suffused with too much partisanship. They are both deeply respected, smart, and love the game. It also, obviously, helps that they both understand politics. And the commissioner’s job is nothing but political—in terms of being able to sell, negotiate, and glad-hand. Probably wouldn’t hurt to have an African American in that job, either, since about 75 percent of the players are black.
Strauss: How scared is the league of Kaepernick’s collusion grievance?
Leibovich: They hate this. Everyone I talked to in the ownership and league thought this case would just be thrown out. Now it’s going forward, and a lot of very secretive and nervous people—NFL owners—are going to have to testify. It might very well not go well for them.