On a Friday evening in late September, President Trump and a group of aides gathered in the executive office of Air Force One.
A television was tuned to Fox News, which was replaying and deconstructing a clip from Trump’s rally earlier that day in Huntsville, Ala. Though he had appeared in support of Luther Strange in a primary runoff for the Senate, the footage had nothing to do with Alabama politics.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’ ” Trump had told the crowd in a state he won in 2016 by nearly 30 points. “ ‘He is fired. He’s fired!’ ”
As he had done often on the campaign trail, the president had been winging it. During a planning session on the flight to Alabama for the Strange rally, a White House aide would recall months later, there had been no plans to mention the National Football League or the players who, over the past year, had protested racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before games.
But the mood struck, and Trump went for it. Reliving his words during the flight back to Washington, Trump pointed out to staffers that his off-the-cuff remark had been perhaps the biggest applause line of the night.
Four months later, with the NFL approaching the finish line to a turbulent season with Sunday’s Super Bowl, America’s most powerful sports league remains wounded from an ongoing culture war that started almost by accident.
Trump, sensing he had energized his conservative base by shifting the anthem debate to a question of the players’ patriotism, continued to go after the NFL. Employing his favorite megaphone, the president raged on Twitter, chiding Commissioner Roger Goodell to crack down on the “total disrespect” and mocking the league for “boring games” that led to ratings being “way down.” Over the weekend after his Alabama speech, as Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Trump did not say a public word about the storm but posted 11 tweets about the NFL anthem controversy.
He didn’t stop there. Two weeks after Alabama, he dispatched Vice President Pence to attend — and, following protests, abruptly leave — a game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, whose former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the anthem protests in 2016 and who had several players protesting each week. Even during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump took a veiled shot at the NFL, a sports league at odds with the president and — with players pitted against owners, fans against players, one owner against the league’s commissioner — divided against itself.
One individual close to NFL ownership said: “It is a mess, and it is a mess in terms of how to deal with it because we’ve never had this situation happen. We don’t really know what to do. We’re trying to navigate it without involving the president.”
White House aides emphasized that Trump has spoken out regularly, on the campaign trail and in office, about the importance of the flag, the military and veterans. But they acknowledged that there was no master plan that underpinned his impromptu NFL criticism.
For a president who thrives on conflict, the league served as just another convenient foil — and, perhaps, a particularly satisfying one given Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to buy an NFL franchise. But for the league, which had attempted for years to build a connection to the flag and patriotism as it replaced baseball as America’s pastime, his comments initiated a full-blown crisis, exposing social fault lines that had always been there — but those the league had been reluctant to confront. For months, the league has struggled to figure out how to respond to Trump amid a genuine sense that he had gotten the upper hand. In many ways, as the NFL gathers in Minneapolis this weekend for its glittery showcase, the fallout continues even as the president has mostly moved on.
“It put us in a position where we had to be political, and I don’t think it’s what any of us wanted,” said one NFL team executive, among more than a dozen league sources who requested anonymity so as not to draw Trump’s attention back to the league or any particular franchise.
“It was a terrible year.”
Not long after the death of Bills founder Ralph Wilson in March 2014, Trump summoned a group of allies to Trump Tower in New York.
Jon Bon Jovi, the 1980s rocker who once owned part of the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul, was the leading candidate to buy the Bills, a team Trump also was interested in owning. Two decades earlier, Trump bought the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League, and rather than coexist with the more powerful NFL, Trump wanted a war — or at least a merger. Trump was among a group of owners who in 1986 filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The suit backfired, the USFL folded, and Trump was effectively blackballed.
But with the Bills suddenly available in 2014, Trump saw more than an opportunity to own one of the NFL’s 32 franchises and join the most exclusive club in sports. For a man who loathes rejection, this was a chance to avenge a past failure and triumph over a group that had once defeated him.
“People would’ve said that’s impossible,” a close friend said of the idea of Trump owning an NFL team. “[Chicago Bears chairman Ed] McCaskey, [Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan] Rooney, [former New York Jets owner] Leon Hess would’ve said: ‘He will never walk in this room,’ and then he walks in the room. That would’ve been classic Donald, and he would’ve relished it.”
So with that in mind, Trump wanted to take a guerrilla approach to NFL ownership: quietly, creatively. “The old-fashioned way,” longtime ally and veteran Republican operative Michael Caputo said Trump put it, and Caputo had known Trump long enough to know that meant turning the people of Buffalo against Bon Jovi.
Caputo, a Buffalo resident, said Trump put him in charge of building a fan group that would become known as “12th Man Thunder,” and Caputo began by distributing a petition asking any buyer to keep the team in Buffalo. Next came measures that would later seem positively Trumpian: a Twitter campaign in which Trump marketed himself as an advocate for the people of Buffalo, praise for the team drafting wide receiver Sammy Watkins and tweets directed at Goodell. Caputo’s group, meanwhile, spread rumors about Bon Jovi’s plans to move the Bills to Canada and then set up safe spaces at restaurants bars called “Bon Jovi Free Zones,” where patrons could escape the singer’s music.
“We could be as insulting as we wanted to be,” Caputo would say later.
It revealed Trump, Bon Jovi told Howard Stern last month, as an “evil genius.”
As the months passed, Trump noticed who was supporting him and who wasn’t, collecting slights for later. It was Bon Jovi sitting across Goodell at a business lunch. It was Terry and Kim Pegula, who owned the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, whom New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer would support publicly. Even a few trusted NFL allies, including close friend and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, would let down Trump, associates later recalled.
But for all the maneuvering and creative marketing — plus, an attempt to bypass the NFL’s bidding process by offering $1 billion in cash — Trump, the reality television star who had led the birther controversy against former president Barack Obama, had a credibility problem.
“Nobody really took it seriously,” an individual familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said, adding that league officials believed Trump was interested in the Bills only at a lowball price.
In the end, none of it mattered: The Pegulas bid $1.4 billion, an amount that surprised even a few franchise owners.
Trump seemed to take another rejection by the NFL in stride — for a while.
“The only reason I bid on @buffalobills was to make sure they stayed in Buffalo, where they belong. Mission accomplished,” Trump tweeted in October 2014.
Then, appearing to stew on it, his tone changed.
“Glad I didn’t get the Bills. Rather be lucky than good,” he tweeted a short time later.
Then: “Boring games, too many flags, too soft!”
“I would have produced a winner. Now that won’t happen.”
He was relieved, Trump insisted to associates. With the Bills sold and the NFL dream seemingly dead, Trump suggested this cleared the path to pursue “the big thing,” as he always called it, and the people in his inner circle knew what that meant.
In a few impromptu minutes in September, the president had — at least among his supporters — pivoted anthem protests away from race relations entirely. Now it was about respect, patriotism and the flag itself. The NFL — despite wrapping itself in the stars and stripes more than any other sports body with almost weekly salutes to service, field-length American flags and military flyovers — had lost its way.
“Not the same game anymore,” Trump said, going on to criticize game officials and the league’s increased emphasis on safety for “ruining” pro football.
Critics of Trump, including some players, were outraged at what they perceived as clear racial overtones embedded in the president’s attacks, which appeared largely aimed at African Americans, and came as Trump fended off criticism over his handling of racially charged violence in Charlottesville last August.
Over the next few hours, NFL franchises scrambled to go on defense. Before the season, teams were content to let protests, as one owner put it to The Washington Post in August, “fade away.” Now that was impossible.
One team received so much hate mail over the days and weeks following Trump’s remarks that its digital operation became overwhelmed trying to track it all. The Bills called an emergency team meeting in which anyone could speak their mind freely. The Denver Broncos, with five military installations within 100 miles, instructed employees to respond to every email and later distributed talking points — responses to most any criticism or conspiracy theory — to receptionists.
And that, according to Trump associates, was precisely the point. “He did a service for the league,” former Trump ally Sam Nunberg said, by forcing the NFL to deal with protests.
Those in and around the league didn’t quite see it that way. Shahid Khan, the Jacksonville Jaguars owner and a former Trump donor, would refer to the president as the “great divider,” referring to Americans in general, though as time passed it became clear the country’s favorite sports league had been split, as well.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s attacks, the majority of teams released statements supporting players. Responding directly to the president’s words and tweets, all 32 teams staged one demonstration or another surrounding the anthem, and dozens of players sat or knelt during the song, almost all to loud boos from fans. A week later, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who sat on the bench during the anthem all season, wore a shirt reading “EVERYBODY -VS- TRUMP.”
“They knelt in defiance of him,” one influential league figure said. “They were just making a statement that he can’t tell us what to do.”
A month after Alabama, franchise owners and a group that became known as the “players coalition” met in New York to discuss protests and policy. Hailed initially as cooperation between caucuses that are rarely aligned, the meeting was quickly overshadowed after ESPN revealed Houston Texans owner Robert McNair had referred to players as “inmates running the prison,” prompting some offended attendees to leave the meeting room.
Afterward, some Texans players walked out of the team facility when McNair’s reference became public, and before another hastily called meeting between McNair and players, a few Texans considered boycotting their upcoming game in Seattle.
Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, spoke with Trump four days after his remarks in Alabama and publicly vowed to bench any player who protested. The president issued “a big salute” to Jones on Twitter, and individuals in and around the league eventually suspected Trump and Jones were coordinating what they were saying and doing — a pair of known showmen playing to their own bases. Jones eventually threatened to sue the NFL over Goodell’s contract extension.
Television ratings continued a downward trend, declining almost 10 percent from the previous year, and concussions — perhaps the league’s most urgent issue as it scrambles to improve health and safety for players — increased by 13.5 percent.
Four weeks after the NFL appeared unified in opposition to the president’s sentiments, enthusiasm began eroding. By Week 7, 23 players from seven teams knelt, sat or raised a fist during the national anthem, and as the season continued, the players coalition — once seen as a powerful acknowledgment of players’ newfound political voice — fell apart amid infighting and an inability to articulate its demands to owners.
“Most of the players realized that what we’re trying to protest isn’t working,” an NFL team executive said. “We’re not making any headway; we’re just pissing everybody off. . . . We want to support you, but what do you want to do? Nobody has a good answer.”
By the regular season’s final week, 19 players were demonstrating during the national anthem, and owners were pleased that Trump seemed to have called off his attacks. Several owners and high-ranking executives this week declined to discuss Trump or the president’s influence over the season, suggesting it was unwise to provoke him as a tumultuous season’s finish line was in sight.
As the NFL spent the season cringing at what might come next, the man who started the tumult seemed to lose interest. Trump sent the occasional tweet but was, a White House aide said, too busy on Sundays to watch games. (Of the last 18 Sundays with televised NFL games, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller’s tracking, the president spent 12 of those at one of his golf courses).
He pointedly attended the college football championship last month, standing on the field with his hand over his heart for the national anthem. His point made, Trump left the game at halftime. The president had no plans to attend Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, and after conducting a halftime interview during last year’s game televised on Fox, Trump declined a request to be interviewed by NBC, which will broadcast this year’s game and is a network Trump has frequently called unfair in its coverage of his administration.
Days before the most important day of the NFL’s year, many of those watching from a league perspective admitted Trump overshadowed much of what happened on the field — and which side lost the battle for public opinion.
“Trump was pretty brilliant, though, to be honest. He flipped the narrative away from his detractors and his personal stuff, and he had everybody focused on the NFL,” one team executive said. “It worked. It was sick, but it worked.”
Nine months after Trump lost out on buying the Buffalo Bills, he descended an escalator at Trump Tower. “The big thing” was happening; Trump was declaring his plans to run for president.
Over the next 17 months, as his TRUMP-emblazoned jet (bought from Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen) took him across the United States, he could not shake his fascination with the NFL. He invited Rex Ryan, at the time the Bills coach, to introduce him at a primary rally in Buffalo. He consulted Kraft often and, according to Nunberg, sent a letter of support to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (who for a while kept a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker) during the Deflategate saga. He read a letter from Coach Bill Belichick during a rally in 2016.
Caputo, the longtime operative who has known Trump for three decades, said he’s more confident in Trump’s desire to own an NFL team than he is in the president running for a second term.
“Donald Trump understands the NFL fan better than the owners do,” Caputo said. “It’s not because he’s smarter; it’s not because he understands football better. It’s because he spent 18 months on the road talking with NFL fans, face to face.”
Not long after Trump won the election, he called his longtime friend Kraft, who through the Patriots declined an interview request for this story but who, a Trump associate said, apologized to Trump for any appearance of disloyalty. These days Trump and Kraft speak as often as once a week, according to an individual close to Kraft. During one of those conversations, Trump brought up his attempt to buy the Bills and one failure that changed history.
“Thank goodness that didn’t work out,” an administration official overheard Trump telling Kraft, “because I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”