He won: Donald Trump’s decadeslong battle with the NFL

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In 2014, the Buffalo Bills made history. Sure, they had their first winning season since 2004, finishing second in the AFC East with a 9-7 record. But more importantly, the Bills organization inspired Donald Trump to run for president and finally tackle the NFL this season (probably).

Let me retract a little: The truth is, Trump has held a grudge against the NFL for decades, long before political rallies and cries of patriotism.

In 1983, Trump bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, or USFL — a spring and summer professional football league intended to compete with, but not against, the NFL.

He encouraged other USFL executives to pass lucrative programming deals to pursue antitrust litigation against the NFL. While the court sided with the USFL, they only awarded $3.76 in damages. In less than three years, Trump had run the league into bankruptcy.

Trump 0. NFL 1.

But with the Bills, Trump saw a Hail Mary: a long shot with the prospect of glory.

It all started after the death of Bills founder Ralph Wilson in March 2014 and the subsequent sale of the team. That April, Trump told the Buffalo News that he was going to give buying the Bills a “heavy shot.”

He hired Republican operative Michael Caputo to head the process, launched an aggressive Twitter campaign (surprise, surprise) where he positioned himself as a champion of the people of Buffalo, New York, and even offered to buy the team for $1 billion.

Trump, however, found himself blackballed again. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, was cozying up to interested buyer Jon Bon Jovi. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, publicly supported the sale of the team to the Pegula family, owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Even Trump’s friends in the league, such as Patriots owner Robert Kraft, abandoned him.

In the end, the Pegula family bought the team for $1.4 billion. The reaction to the loss was Trumpian: He first exuded a superficial benevolence by taking credit for keeping the team in Buffalo, and then after sulking in defeat, he shifted his tone and began to attack the Bills and the NFL.

Trump 0. NFL 2.

Things wouldn’t stay down for Trump. The Washington Post quoted an administrative official overhearing Trump tell Kraft, “Thank goodness that (buying the Bills) didn’t work out because I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

This — the presidency — was his chance to have power over the exclusive club that had twice defeated him.

Trump isn’t smart enough to have developed an elaborate plan to defeat the NFL. He had largely ignored his grudge until a September rally in Alabama, where — much like most of his presidency — he winged it and ignited a debate. His natural bigotry proved useful, and he hit a lucky strike.

In a league that has spent the better part of the last decade aligning itself with patriotism and those who tout it, Trump successfully took a peaceful protest and inserted violent rhetoric, casting the Black men responsible for the protest as a danger to not only the very ideals the NFL had promoted, but also the American people.

It didn’t matter that Colin Kaepernick had changed his protest from sitting during the anthem to kneeling to demonstrate his support of the military or that he and participating players consistently emphasized police violence as the cause.

Trump saw insubordinate Black men disrupting an American norm and weaponized patriotism.

He used that weapon to call dissenting players “sons of bitches,” dispensed Vice President Mike Pence into a media stunt at the 49ers-Colts game and repeatedly taunted the NFL’s decreasing ratings.

For a little while, it looked like it wouldn’t work. By Week 4, all 32 teams had displayed some type of demonstration and more than 130 players engaged in the protest. Teams released statements that defended players’ constitutional rights and created programs dedicated to social responsibility.

By Week 7, however, the number of players kneeling had dwindled to 23. Trump doubled down on the NFL, and owners threatened to bench players for protesting. The November Players Coalition negotiations fell apart and by the end of regular season, only 19 players knelt. Before last Sunday’s Super Bowl 52, not a single player knelt.

The worst part? His weapon fired.

Players, activists and journalists pointed to his blatant bigotry and called him racist while indignant supporters were proud of a president who would finally tackle the NFL.

Correlation does not imply causation. While polls circulated that a majority of Americans believed players should stand for the anthem, the NFL has already lost popularity from its conspicuous handling of concussion crisis and player safety.

But the basic fact was that NFL ratings were down 10 percent and Goodell found himself teetering on a double edged sword: struggling to find action that supported players’ protests while placating both an agitated fan base and distressed market executives.

Meanwhile, Trump was just satisfied that he had finally detrimentally impacted the impenetrable club. And for that, he won.

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]