Why Does President Donald Trump Hate the NFL?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 20, 2017

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2017, photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Trump says Democrats are holding up his judicial nominees, but almost nine months into his presidency he has had more judges confirmed than President Barack Obama did in the same time period. And his numbers aren’t far off those of other recent presidents. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

This week, the owner of the Jaguars, Shad Khan, who donated $1 million to Donald Trump's inauguration, said something publicly about the president that many owners and others across football have been saying privately for months.

"Let's get real," Khan told Jarrett Bell of USA Today. "The attacks on Muslims, the attacks on minorities, the attacks on Jews. I think the NFL doesn't even come close to that on the level of being offensive. Here, it's about money, or messing with—trying to soil a league or a brand that he's jealous of."

This claim—that the president's jealousy of the league lies at the root of his NFL attacks—is one that's been repeated to me dozens of times by a bevy of owners, league officials, team officials and others.

It seems odd, to say the least, that the leader of the greatest nation in the world would be jealous of a sports league. Trump would likely scoff and mock such a notion. But it's what a lot of people across the sport believe.

"He still wants to be one of us," one owner told me in mid-October.

Until now, no owner or league official has said any of this on the record. Khan is the first, and from what I hear, he won't be the last. While the league office might want to ignore Trump, I'm told some owners are tiring of the president's attacks and plan to increasingly rebut him on the record.

Over much of the last year, Trump has ripped the NFL repeatedly, focusing largely on Colin Kaepernick in speeches and tweets. More recently, Trump has expanded his criticism by calling for players who kneel during the national anthem to be suspended and howling that he feels the game has become too soft.

Meg Wagner @megwagner

Trump on the possibility of Clinton running in 2020 and the NFL protests https://t.co/NlAMnStkik

This all raises a question: Why exactly does Trump hate the NFL?

Based on what players and league officials tell me, they think there are three reasons Trump has targeted the NFL.

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Trump has fought the NFL twice before, and each time, the league embarrassed him.

In 1984, he bought the New Jersey Generals of the USFL and then convinced the smaller league to sue the NFL for running a monopoly. The USFL won the case but was awarded a mere $3 in damages, essentially killing it. The ruination of the USFL, and the subsequent public relations embarrassment, were losses that NFL officials now believe sowed the seeds for Trump's dislike of their league.

Thirty years later, the NFL thwarted Trump again when he tried to purchase the Buffalo Bills.

Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

"I'm going to give [buying the Bills] a heavy shot," Trump told Tim Graham of the Buffalo News in April 2014. "I would love to do it, and if I can do it I'm keeping it in Buffalo."

A little more than a year later, Trump was again left looking at the NFL from the outside.

"I bid a billion dollars, all cash on the table," Trump told Sports Illustrated in September 2015. "He [owner Terry Pegula] bought it for a billion-two, I believe, although they say it was a billion-four. I think he got it for a billion‑two."

An NFL source familiar with Trump's bid said he didn't get the team because there was serious doubt among other owners if Trump had the money to purchase the Bills.

The belief is that Trump has held a grudge ever since.

"He's been elected president, where maybe a great goal he had in life to own an NFL team is not very likely," Khan said. "So to make it tougher, or to hurt the league, it's very calculated."



"[Trump]'s lighting a match and setting everything on fire," longtime NFL veteran Dwight Freeney told B/R this week. "He's also trying to use the NFL to divide America."

Trump has utilized race as a divider before. In fact, this tactic goes back decades with him. I know a number of players, and others around the NFL, who believe Trump is using a league that's approximately 67 percent black as another way to sow division with race.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 24: Black Lives Matter protestors rally outside the Minnesota Vikings game on September 24, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The protest, in support of Colin Kaepernick, comes days after disparaging statemen
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Players I've interviewed say they became more energized about their opposition to Trump after his post-Charlottesville comments.

"You have to give Trump credit; people are confused on the First Amendment versus patriotism, that if you exercise your First Amendment [right to free speech] you're not a patriot, which is crazy," Khan said October 12 at an executive conference presented by Crain's Who's Who in Chicago Business. "People are confused on it, [Trump] knew he could hit on it and take advantage. I think what we're seeing is the great divider overcoming the great uniter."  


Simple politics

The NFL is a target-rich environment for politicians: Wealthy players. A powerful league that is sometimes out of touch with its fans. The perception that the NFL is turning its back on its heritage of violence and is going soft. There are few targets in American society bigger and more user friendly as a punching bag than professional football.

"Politics and the Western World will never be the same again," Khan said at the Crain's conference. "A lot of the stuff like football [that] Trump does is highly calculated—he looks for issues that you can touch, and it will blow people up."

If you thought Trump's fight against the NFL was waning, think again. The New York Daily News reported that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have started a petition demanding all players and fans stand for the anthem.

Indeed there are a lot of reasons the president has decided to wage war with the NFL, and so far they seem to be serving his interests. And that means the NFL may find its battle with the White House far from over.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.


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