This fall, when the air starts getting chilly and the leaves on the trees slowly but surely start turning shades of red and gold, tailgaters will return to NFL stadiums across America grilling hamburgers and chugging ice cold beer out of coolers schlepped all the way from home. Scalpers will be on the prowl for their next sucker. People by the tens of thousands in every football town will start streaming through the gates just before the game. Some will have painted faces and be sporting colorful costumes. Many will proudly be wearing the jerseys of their heroes. All of them jealously clutching the tickets that will get them through the concourses to see the game. Anticipation and excitement will be on every face. Come on, they have waited all year to see the Visitors, aka Those Expletive Deleted Guys who knocked us out of the playoffs last year, get their heads handed to them.
Do you know what’s not going to be on their minds? What the players are doing during the one minute and forty seconds on average it takes to play the National Anthem, that’s what.
Donald Trump, in his ceaseless quest to find adversaries and generate controversy to distract America from the dysfunction of his administration, has decided to add the NFL to his Nixonian enemies list. He has made what was a quiet and solemn protest designed to call attention to the issue of police brutality against minorities into a full-blown culture war over patriotism, the military and respect for the flag. His calculus is that if he gets enough people to pay attention to this particular shiny object, nobody will notice that he is likely to beat Gerald Ford as the shortest serving Chief Executive who did not die in office. But his plan has apparently run into an equally distracting and more compelling shiny object for people to focus on:
The Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions. They hail from a city that has never experienced the joy of a Super Bowl champion in their town, and boy do they love their “Iggles”. Trump’s recent decision to disinvite the champs to the White House over a controversy that he himself created has instead blown up in his face. Without the team and hundreds of cheering fans, the “Celebration of America” Tuesday on the South Lawn had the excitement and thrills of an oil change. Looking more petulant than patriotic, Trump’s ceremony had all of the pomp but none of the circumstance.
Now if you love sports and especially if you love the Philadelphia Eagles, this should come as absolutely no surprise. Donald Trump is not going to get Eagles fans, or anybody else’s fans for that matter, to turn their backs on the teams they have loved for generations because players “disagree with their President” and decide to kneel or stay in the tunnel before the National Anthem, which is something the Eagles team never even did during the regular season. Nor are they likely to turn their backs on a sport that has become a quintessentially American tradition because Trump needs a political cudgel.
The NFL regular season is a grand 17 week passion among Americans. Its popularity has fluctuated in recent years, but still exceeds that of baseball, basketball or hockey. People pay hard earned money to get those jerseys and tickets Trump is asking us to eschew. The average NFL ticket last year was $172.00, running the gamut from $380.00 to see the New England Patriots to as cheap as $86.00 for the Cincinnati Bengals. Authentic jerseys average $99.00 each. And people are paying the money. Colin Kaepernick, who first called attention to police brutality against the black community by kneeling during the National Anthem back in 2016, still had his old San Francisco 49ers jersey as one of the best-sellers in the league months after he left the team. Even this year, sales rival those of five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, and Kaepernick isn’t even on anybody’s roster. Americans watch football in stadiums and at home. We experience the agony and the ecstasy of winning and losing in restaurants, bars, airports and even on our phones. Anywhere a TV is broadcasting the local game, there are people watching who love football. Trump doesn’t love football. It’s extremely likely he has never even seen a game in his life unless it was in a luxury box to impress business associates. So why are we listening to him?
I was in Colorado when the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII against the defending champion Green Bay Packers in 1998 after four previous failed attempts. If then President Bill Clinton was waging a personal war against the NFL and told Broncos fans to give up their season tickets and stop rooting for the team because players were showing disrespect for the flag, I can personally guarantee you that each and every one of those fans would tell him to get stuffed. Gen. George S. Patton was right. “Americans love a winner” and right now Trump is looking like the field goal kicker who just missed a chip shot to win the game with no time left on the clock.
During the season, there’s really only one question on the minds of true football fans and it has nothing do with the fixation the President of the United States has on whether or not players are kneeling during the National Anthem.
“What down is it?”
Seriously, that’s it. “What down is it?”
Well, in fairness there are other burning questions. “How many yards do we need before a first?” “Are we in field goal range?” “Did the ball cross the plane?” “Did he strip the ball or was it an incomplete pass? (Spoiler alert: it’s an incomplete pass. Tuck Rule, you know.) “Why didn’t he just throw it away instead of taking the sack?” “Who’s leading the division?” “What’s our ‘Magic Number’?” And by the way, if you don’t know that the “Magic Number” refers to in football, you aren’t actually a fan so what do you care anyway? We argue about whether or not the ground caused a fumble. We want our team to go for it on fourth-and-inches. We are madder than holy hell when the refs don’t call what was clearly pass interference.
But you know something? Thinking about how patriotic we are or how great the American military is just doesn’t cross our minds. Nor are we thinking about whether the President is right or wrong when he tells us to despise what he perceives are overpaid and uppity black men on the field who should be fired for engaging in social activism, which has been part of the fabric of sports for years. I’m sorry if this upsets some people, but this isn’t a political rally. This is a football game. It’s a sporting event and the most important thing is whether or not your team is beating the crap out of the other team.
Trust me. I’m a sports fan. More to the point I’m a football fan. My family members are all football fans. So are my friends, my old classmates, the people I work with and so is the guy sitting next to me at my local bar on Sundays in October. Except he’s wearing a Seahawks jersey and I hate the Seahawks. But one thing we all have in common is that we love the game. We adore our teams. We shower affection on the players because they make our cities proud when they win. The one thing that seems to be missing from our national discussion on this issue are the opinions of football fans themselves. Sometimes it seems the only people having this “discussion” are the President, who started this nonsense to begin with, and the players, who have been dragged unnecessarily into it because they believe in social justice. Everyone else who is preoccupied with this debate are either members of Trump’s base, the majority of whom demographically don’t seem live in places where there is a professional football team, or highbrow intellectuals who didn’t watch football to begin with because of its hard-hitting play and potential for injury. Football fans, like most fans of sports, don’t concern themselves with political arguments. Sunday mornings are for politics. Sunday afternoons are for the gridiron.
Will people be upset with football this year? Will they hate the NFL? Absolutely. But winning wipes away a lot of sins. The great Chicago Bears coach George Halas once called a win in the National Football League “a thrill that lasts a whole week…and what a thrill.” Sure, they’ll always be booing and plenty of it. But if you think people are angry when they see a player taking a knee before the game even starts, try experiencing the fury of over 80,000 Giants fans at the New Jersey Meadowlands if Eli Manning throws a watermelon you can read from a lawn chair in Secaucus for a pick six against the Cowboys.
Now that’s football anger.