When President Donald Trump blasted protesting NFL players at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sept. 22, encouraging team owners to fire any "son of a bitch" who "disrespects our flag," the outburst prompted a rare shoulder-to-shoulder display of solidarity by the league's players and owners and even more multifaceted protests at that weekend's games.
But the resulting firestorm focused almost solely on the comments Trump made about the controversial player protests involving the national anthem, and next to nothing about the incendiary attack he made on the NFL's recent efforts to limit head injuries and increase player safety.
That night, Trump also decried the softening of the NFL, claiming, "Today, if you hit too hard: 15 yards! Throw him out of the game! ... They're ruining the game! That's what they want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game."
Later, after calling for a fan walk-out at NFL games in protest of the protests, he added: "Not the same game anymore, anyway.''
The turn-back-the-clock thinking espoused by the president, who all but called for increased violence in the game, might have gotten lost in the resulting tsunami of media coverage, but it wasn't lost on many of the men who played in the NFL or still do. They heard his nostalgic ode to the way the game used to be played, and their response to his anti-player-safety tirade carries the weight of firsthand involvement in the issue. They are not merely the spectators whom Trump said were the losers in this scenario. They live with the real-life repercussions and physical toll the game takes on those who play it.
B/R contacted seven former or current NFL players to seek their thoughts on what Trump said about the "ruining'' of the game via player-safety initiatives, and what they would say to him in response to those charges. Here are highlights of their reactions:
Harry Carson, the Hall of Fame inside linebacker who played for the New York Giants from 1976-88, told Penn State radio station WPSU in 2014 that he would not have played football had he known the danger the game posed to his long-term health. Carson experienced bouts of depression, headaches and blurred vision even while he was playing, and his cognitive issues were finally diagnosed as post-concussion syndrome in 1990, which he still lives with at age 63.
"There are people who will say, 'I miss the way they used to play the game, with guys blasting each other and playing full tilt.' When you miss that, it tells me that you want the players to go out and be gladiators, and you want them to basically fight to the death. You want somebody to pay a price. Even knowing as we do today that the risks of brain injury are there.
"I have prohibited my grandson from playing football. But if people like the president want old-fashioned football, let his son go out and play, and let him be like the old-fashioned players and see what happens to him down the road. I would say to him he should fall on his knees every night and give thanks for being raised in an environment where he was the spectator and not the player. He didn't have to play the game to go to college, and he didn't have to play the game to bring his family out of hardships, out of poverty, like so many young men are doing in football. He never had to experience any kind of pain or hardship, because his family was financially in position to help him."
New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener, the former Stanford University standout, is in his sixth NFL season. He spent the first four years of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him in the second round. Fleener, 29, is in the prime of his career while there is still so much to be learned about brain injuries and the issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated blows to the head. Fleener believes the notion that the vast majority of NFL players would consider a return to a more dangerous style of play is the height of ignorance.
"[Trump] would struggle to find many players who agree with him. There are probably some who are ill-informed or unaware of the consequences, and some that pretend not to think about it or care. But I think the majority of players would probably be lying to themselves if they said they wouldn't be scared or sad about the diagnosis if they would be afflicted with something like [CTE], or wouldn't change their style of play in any case.
"His comments are a pretty selfish and shortsighted view of things. I understand from a viewer's perspective, because as a spectator, seeing those train-wreck collisions—those hits that you don't want to be a part of but can't look away from—that is a form of entertainment. But in human history, there have also been some pretty gruesome forms of entertainment where you were essentially sacrificing human beings, and I'd like to think that we are progressing beyond those things and towards a world where guys don't have to worry about mental issues because of the sport that they played when they were much younger.
"Ultimately, it's one of those things where you wonder if he were out there trying to support his family, risking his health, would the same considerations apply? Only he can answer that."
Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith surprisingly retired from the NFL after a career-best 2000 season in which he led the NFC in rushing with 1,521 yards and played all 16 games for the first time in his eight-year career. He was 28 at the time and was slated to hit the jackpot in free agency that offseason. But he quietly announced his retirement via email, explaining that he valued the ability to live a normal, pain-free lifestyle in the coming years far more than he did another monster NFL payday. "I'd rather walk away early than limp away late," Smith said. At 45, Smith is a well-regarded college football studio analyst for Fox and the Big Ten Network.
"What [Trump] said, I mean it's almost so absurd it doesn't deserve a response. He's a clown act. He's a narcissist in the truest sense of the word, and he's a social media junkie, with all the worst parts of the look-at-me culture for shock value. That's who the guy is. And considering the source, you know it's coming from a place of ignorance. Anybody who really knew what it was like to play the game and knew what the costs were, and not just the costs that some people know about, would never say something like that.
"I know people want to make it political, and they want to go after Trump for anything he says, but to me, he's just some guy in a bar that loves to watch the game. He loves the violence of the game but doesn't understand what it's really about or how it affects people. I'm proud of the changes that have been made in the game, many of which were initiated by the players, and I hope there are more.
"To be fair, though, I don't know how many defensive players would honestly disagree with him. A lot of defensive players, especially linemen, think the quarterbacks are protected too much and that the rules don't allow them to play football. You hear that all the time, how hard it is to play having to make a split-second decision on where to make contact. ... I'm guessing there are far more players on the offensive side that would have an approach that's a bit more reasonable in terms of their long-term health."
Buffalo Bills guard Richie Incognito is currently in the midst of his 12th NFL season, having made the past two AFC Pro Bowl rosters as part of his well-chronicled career renaissance in western New York. Incognito plays in the trenches, where contact and collisions are a constant hazard of the job. He's known for his smashmouth, physical style of play and never shying away from handing out punishment as well as absorbing it. Incognito publicly supported Trump for president in 2016, but at age 34 and 139 games into his NFL career, he says it's difficult for a player to want a more violent style of play returned to the game.
"Really, the only people who can have the conversation about how violent the game is are the men who stepped in between those white lines and who laid it on the line day in and day out. Guys who have felt the bumps and bruises of a 17-week season, and who grind through pain to practice and play. I know as a player, I was born and raised to be as physical as possible, and hit everything moving. I'm cut from a different cloth from a lot of guys these days. I'm more of a meat-and-potatoes grinder type. Physical, rambunctious. So it's hard for us to differentiate right now when you're playing, because we're in the mode of being physical. But when you take a step back and look at it from 50,000 feet, yeah, I could see where that conversation [about player safety] would get started.
"For me as a guard, it's not a lot less contact these days, not a lot less at all. It's violent in the trenches. You're getting sideswiped, people are running up your back. You're not only hitting people in front of you, but you're getting hit from all directions. There are some big bodies in there, moving fast, flying around. Some big, strong, athletic people in there colliding, play after play, day after day, week after week. We lay our bodies on the line for one another, and that's what makes us so close. It's why there's such a small fraternity of guys who actually step on the field and know what it's like to strap it up and play in the best league in the world."
Tony Boselli was considered one of the NFL's premier left offensive tackles during the course of his injury-shortened seven-year career (1995-2001). Drafted second overall by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, he was named a first-team All-Pro three times and was selected to five Pro Bowls. He tried to continue his career with the Houston Texans when they selected him in their expansion draft in 2002, but his surgically repaired left shoulder never fully recovered and he officially retired in 2003. He played his final game in 2001, before the age of 30. Boselli, 45, today serves as an NFL radio color analyst on both Westwood One and the Jaguars' network.
"There's no argument that the game has changed, because the rules have changed. Where I would disagree with the president is to say we've wussified the game. I think we're a long way from that. Turn on the game on a Sunday, and it's still a very physical, tough game. Is it different? Absolutely. The rule changes have opened it up more. For instance, in the passing game, because you can't hit defenseless receivers, the middle of the field's open. But to say the game's soft now? I disagree with him, even though it doesn't mean I agree with every rule change. But it's still football. It's still physical and it's still tough and it's still a controlled violence on the field. They're just trying to protect guys.
"The game has always evolved. They used to be able to head-slap. I'm glad they couldn't head-slap when I played, because it was hard enough blocking Bruce Smith and guys like him without getting head-slapped. To call the game of football soft...I just don't see it, and I'm at two NFL games live a week."
Scott Fujita played linebacker for four different NFL teams from 2002-12, winning a Super Bowl with the 2009 Saints. The Chiefs drafted the former University of California standout with a fifth-round pick in 2002, and for 11 seasons, he was a dependable team leader no matter what uniform he wore. Fujita, 38, admits when he first heard about President Trump's comments on Sept. 22, he paid much more attention to him "calling everybody SOB's," but later wondered why "there wasn't much of even a blip on the radar regarding what he said about football.''
"More than anything else, I don't give a whole lot of thought or credence to anything this person [Trump] says, because it's so uninformed and so outlandish and just him trying to fire up his base. But as much as I want to just disregard it, the reality is that what he does say carries some weight with a lot of people. And that's the part of this whole adventure, or misadventure, of the last nine months. With every issue, not just this specific football issue, his words carry weight, and they embolden a certain psyche. I would say that applies to the football conversation as well.
"It's one thing to call a bunch of players a bunch of SOBs because they want to kneel during the national anthem and that fires everybody up. It's another thing to talk about the wussification of pro football, and that gets his fans all fired up and separates them from the players. Even though it's all based on these misinformed, perhaps nostalgic ideas about what the game either was or perhaps still should be.
"For me, as a defensive player especially, a lot of us have matured and evolved with some growing pains through this whole conversation. It's a culture shift, and it has taken place in just a few years. For defensive players, it's almost a total shift in psyche. Because I get the physics of the game, and to see the big hits and know what it's like to be running full speed and have to change your trajectory angle and all these things that have been talked about ad nauseam, I get it. It's difficult. But it just doesn't f--king matter any more. The point for debating these issues, it's over. You have to do better. It's as simple as that."
LaVar Arrington was the second overall pick in the 2000 draft and played seven seasons in the NFL, the first six in Washington. The former Penn State star retired in 2007 after one injury-shortened season with the Giants in 2006, which ended when he tore his Achilles in Week 7. He began a career in broadcasting and media following his retirement, and at 39, he today enjoys teaching the "fundamentals" of the game at a high school in the Washington area.
"He's entitled to his opinion, and he's the POTUS [President of the United States]. When he has an opinion, people are going to listen more. But regardless of his ranking and his office, it's just an opinion. I think it's an uneducated statement to say they're ruining the game with player safety. Someone saying that probably would not be able to prove their statement in logical evidence.
"If you're asking what do I think of the move toward player safety? With anything, there's always going to be an evolution. There was a time where guys got clotheslined and it was acceptable in the game. There was a time where you could actually hit a guy in the back of his legs downfield and it was legal. There was a time where you blindsided a guy and it didn't matter. You could gouge eyes and spit in faces, and that was just where the game was at that point of time. There's always going to be adjustments. As well there should be."
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
Don Banks has covered the NFL since 1990, both as a beat writer for newspapers in Florida and Minnesota, and as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 16-plus years. He currently freelances and lives in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter: @DonBanks.