Donald Trump has been at war with the NFL since 1986

Daniel Roberts

In a single three-minute stretch of a longer speech, Trump encouraged NFL team owners to fire “son of a bitch” NFL players who kneel during the national anthem (“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. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'”); mocked the NFL for declining TV ratings and said the cause is himself (“NFL ratings are down massively… The number one reason happens to be that they like watching what’s happening with yours truly”); ridiculed NFL referees, whom he says are calling too many penalties for hard hits (“They’re ruining the game”); and urged fans to walk out of NFL games if players protest during the anthem (“If you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop”).

But the president’s hostility toward the NFL dates back to 1986, a fact many American sports fans have forgotten over the years.

The United States Football League (USFL) launched in 1983 as a fledgling, 12-team pro league that played in spring and summer, as opposed to the NFL, which played in fall and winter. It did not originally intend to compete directly with the NFL.

Until Trump came into the picture.

In 1983, after the USFL’s inaugural season, a number of wealthy business people bought franchises, expanding it from 12 to 18 teams. Trump was among them — he purchased the New Jersey Generals from Oklahoma oil-and-gas executive J. Walter Duncan for a reported $9 million (Trump has since said that he only paid $5 million). Trump spent a lot on recruiting stars like Doug Flutie to make the Generals better and tried (but failed) to woo NFL coach Don Shula with an offer of $1 million per year.

And then Trump led a group of owners in suing the NFL. The idea was to move the USFL to the fall in order to compete with the NFL and, ideally, force a merger. But the NFL had all the big television contracts wrapped up. So the USFL sued the NFL for anti-trust, seeking $1.7 billion.

Trump and the other USFL owners won on the merits. But the jury awarded them just $1. The costly lawsuit killed the USFL, which was already financially stretched and didn’t have the audience to justify the costs. The league never held a fourth season.

Since then, Trump has repeatedly targeted the NFL on social media — beginning long before he was a presidential candidate.

In 2013, Trump tweeted that the NFL banning helmet-to-helmet contact (an attempt to cut down on concussions) was “the beginning of the end.”

Later that year, he criticized President Barack Obama for giving an opinion on the Redskins name controversy. Trump said, “Our country has far bigger problems… focus on them,” an ironic criticism given the amount of time that Trump, as president, has now devoted to discussing the NFL.

In 2014, after Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson died, Trump entered a bid for the team. After a six-month bidding process, Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres, got the team for a reported $1.4 billion. (Trump later told Sports Illustrated he doubted that reported price: “He bought it for a billion-two, I believe, although they say it was a billion-four.”)

Trump wasn’t pleased. In a series of tweets throughout October 2014, Trump questioned the NFL’s tax exemption status; mocked the league for a TV ratings dip; and said that if he had gotten the Bills, he would have produced a winning team better than the Pegulas could.

Again and again, seemingly with no specific inciting event each time, Trump has mocked the NFL and argued that the game has gotten worse. Later in 2014, he said, “I’m getting totally bored watching NFL football” and called the game “too soft.”

Now fast forward to his time as a candidate, then Republican nominee, and then president: He has continued to verbally target the NFL as a way to foment outrage from his supporters.

In October 2016, at a campaign rally before the general election, Trump brought up NFL ratings and boasted that he was part of the reason for their decline: “I don’t know if you know, but the NFL is way down in their ratings. Way down… You know why? Two reasons. Number one is, this politics they’re finding is a rougher game than football, and more exciting. Honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL. And the other reason is Kaepernick.”

And now he is turning NFL player protests into a political talking point. (He is also making political hay out of the NBA, uninviting the entire Golden State Warriors team to the White House and blaming Stephen Curry.) NFL owners across the league responded with statements, and players responded by kneeling on Sunday or linking arms, but Trump, amidst these demonstrations, doubled down, tweeting, “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

What is clear is that Trump is not likely to let up on the NFL any time soon. So, expect the 2017 football season to be at the center of an ongoing national political discussion.

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