The gesture from the teams was a clear response to those who had been waiting to see how the NFL would respond two days after President Trump railed against football players who knelt during the national anthem. At a fiery Alabama rally on Friday, Trump seemed to refer to Colin Kaepernick — the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem last season to bring attention to police brutality — as a “son of a b—-” and called for NFL owners to fire any players who did the same. (The next day, the president doubled down on his controversial remarks, but not before also picking a fight with the NBA.)
The gesture from 67-year-old “Shad” Khan, on the other hand, seemed to carry extra weight. On social media, people reacted strongly to what was believed to be the first time an NFL team owner had taken such a public stand on the side of his players during a national anthem demonstration.
Khan’s stance came as a surprise to some who noted he had not only voted for Trump but donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee — a fact not lost on Khan’s critics, who believe the president’s policies cannot be disentangled from his rhetoric.
But for those who have been paying attention to Khan’s rise, which began long before the entrepreneur bought the Jaguars in 2012, his remarks shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard. Khan has always waxed poetic about the American Dream, attributing his success mostly to the unique opportunities afforded by his second home country.
Born in Pakistan, Khan immigrated to the United States in 1967, when he was 16, to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To hear him tell it, the would-be engineering student arrived with $500 and initially stayed at a YMCA that cost $2 a night. Even that seemed like a staggering sum of money then, as Khan told Forbes for its centennial feature last week on the “100 greatest living business minds.”
“But the next morning, I found an opportunity to make even bigger money. All I had to do was wash dishes and I could earn $1.20 an hour,” Khan told the magazine. “That was more than 99% of the people back home in Pakistan. I realized right then that this was the land of opportunity and I could control my own fate. Less than 24 hours after arriving, I had already discovered the American Dream.”
While in college, Khan began working at Flex-N-Gate, an Illinois company that manufactured auto parts. After graduating, he remained with the company as an engineering manufacturer, but left after several years to develop a more economical way to manufacture single-piece car bumpers. Everything about Khan’s start-up operation, Bumper Works, was scrappy, as Forbes reported:
With nothing more than a P.O. box and a small-business loan, in 1978 Khan stepped out on his own, and his newly christened Bumper Works gained customers right away. … The honeymoon didn’t last long. Just a week after Khan left Flex-N-Gate, the company sued him for stealing trade secrets and breaching fiduciary duty. An injunction would have crippled Bumper Works before it took its first test drive. Low on cash, Khan paid the cheapest lawyer he could find to stand up for Bumper Works in court but effectively ran the defense himself, holed up in the law library at his alma mater at night after overseeing production in Danville during the day.
Khan would go on to win the legal battles against Flex-N-Gate — and eventually bought the company outright in 1980. Over the next three decades, he would grow the manufacturer into a multibillion-dollar company. Forbes now estimates Khan’s net worth at $7.1 billion, placing him in the top 100 richest people in the United States and among the highest-ranking billionaires in the world.
However, Khan set his sights on the fulfillment of a personal goal: the ownership of a football team. A converted fan of American football, thanks to his days watching games with his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers, Khan spent a decade networking and studying NFL franchises before he bought the Jaguars, he told an audience last year at the SAE World Congress, an automotive convention. Khan, who is Muslim, hinted that his outsider/minority status may have played a part in why negotiations to buy a majority stake in the then-St. Louis Rams fell through in 2010.
“From the 1890s to 2010, there had never been a nonwhite owner” of an NFL team, Khan said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “When I heard that, I thought this was never going to go through. There were whispers … and it never made sense to me.”
Soon after the Rams deal failed, Khan jumped on the chance to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars, finalizing the deal in 2012 for $770 million. The immigrant’s purchase of the historically dismal Florida franchise (especially after a 5-11 season Bleacher Report charitably described as “lackluster”) was met with a combination of bemusement and awe.
Marking the deal, Forbes trumpeted Khan as the “FACE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM” on the cover of its Sept. 24, 2012 issue.
“Pakistan-born Shahid Khan built a $3.4 billion manufacturing juggernaut from the ruins of an Illinois auto parts maker,” the corresponding article stated then. “To celebrate, he just bought one of the worst teams in the NFL … ”
Still, the magazine noted Khan was making history as the “first ethnic-minority owner” of any NFL franchise and captured a sense of possibility for the Jaguars: Perhaps Khan’s ownership could do the same for “football’s biggest headache” as he had for the Rust Belt. Most important, none of the challenges seemed to faze Khan, who told Forbes he saw even the relative absence of Jaguars fans as an opportunity:
The most audacious part of Khan’s plan: international expansion. The easiest move would be to flee to the greener pastures of Los Angeles. But as with running a Rust Belt manufacturer, Khan seems eager to defy the odds and stay put (he says he is “committed to Jacksonville”). Borrowing from the Flex-N-Gate handbook, he sees foreign growth potential as a way to do that. Specifically, he wants to make the Jaguars into a global brand, last month securing a “home game” in London each season for four years starting in 2013. “One of the good things is they don’t have a team loyalty,” says Khan, “so we get a chance by being the first team presented; hopefully we can get them.”
Five years later, it would be partly because of that “most audacious” plan that led Khan to be standing on the field at Wembley Stadium in London, linking arms in solidarity with his players. Earlier in the morning, Trump had criticized the NFL once again on Twitter.
Khan said later in a statement it had been a “privilege” to stand on the sidelines in support of his players after Trump’s “divisive and contentions” remarks.
“Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms — race, faith, our views and our goals,” Khan said. “We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the President make it harder. That’s why it was important for us, and personally for me, to show the world that even if we may differ at times, we can and should be united in the effort to become better as people and a nation.”
It wasn’t the first time he had publicly opposed Trump, despite supporting his campaign. In February, Khan spoke out against a proposed travel ban against residents of seven Muslim-majority countries, warning it could restrict “tens of thousands of people who can contribute to the making of America” and calling it “a sobering time for somebody like me.”
“The bedrock of this country are immigration and really a great separation between church and state,” Khan told the New York Times. “Even for the country, [the travel ban is] not good.”
It’s unclear where the billionaire-turned-football mogul goes from here. Just last month, Khan told “Jaguars Today” radio host Mike Dempsey he had respected Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest during the national anthem, even if he would not have done the same. Sunday’s field demonstration seemed to change that — in the process earning Khan both newfound admiration and disgust.
Of course, Khan’s actions are now buffeted by a newly invigorated wave of NFL unity after Trump’s attack on the league this weekend. Early Sunday, the NFL confirmed it planned to re-air a one-minute “unity” ad Sunday night, as CNN reported. The Pittsburgh Steelers said its players would stay in the locker room for the national anthem for their game against the Chicago Bears.
Even New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who, like Khan, also donated $1 million to Trump — released a statement Sunday saying he was “deeply disappointed” by the tone of Trump’s comments.
“I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal,” Kraft wrote. “Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
Khan made his choice.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Shahid Khan donated to Donald Trump’s campaign. The donation was to Trump’s inaugural committee.