Jan. 10, 2016, will go down in history as the day Donald Trump uttered a statement that actually stood up to fact checking.
Naturally, it bore little relation to presidential politics. The megalomaniacal billionaire and Republican frontrunner is not a drinker, but his unscripted, meandering pep rallies follow the pattern of the barroom sage holding court before the tourists in his domain. The issue doesn’t matter as much as the passion behind whatever topical though inapt analogy pops into his head. That’s how a policy disquisition on the merits of the Iraq War and rise of ISIS turned into a spot-on diagnosis of the decline of the NFL.
“It’s a Sunday, who the hell wants to watch these crummy games? I just want to watch the end. By the way—OK, let me go there for a second. Let me end that story. So we gave them Iraq, we’re stupid. We’re stupid. I’ll change things. Believe me, I’ll change things. And again, we’re going to be so respected. I don’t want to use the word ‘feared.’ What I just said about a game — so I’m watching a game yesterday. What used to be considered a great tackle, a violent, head-on [tackle], a violent—if that was done by Dick Butkus, they’d say he’s the greatest player. If that were done by Lawrence Taylor—it was done by Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, right? Ray Nitschke—you used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch, right?”
“Now they tackle. ‘Oh, head-on-head collision, 15 yards.’ The whole game is all screwed up. You say, ‘Wow, what a tackle.’ Bing. Flag. Football’s become soft like our country has become soft,” he said to cheers. “ I watched yesterday in particular. So many flags, right? So many flags. And I could imagine a guy like Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus, who was really rough, and some of these guys sitting there watching: ‘Wow, what a beautiful tackle.’ ‘Fifteen yards!’”
Complaints about the changing nature of defense aren’t reserved to legendary linebackers. If Trump delivered that speech in Cincinnati, fresh from its playoff loss following consecutive personal foul calls, he probably would have locked up Ohio in the primary and general. There’s more than mere emotion to Trump’s assertion. Fans saw 537 more penalty flags in 2015 than they did in 2009, according to NFLPenalties.com. That growth can be directly attributed to the 2010 reforms that eliminated helmet-to-helmet tackling and hits on defenseless receivers, the “beautiful tackle” as Trump would say. While pre-snap penalties, such as offsides, fell 3 percent, unnecessary-roughness calls increased 53 percent; defensive holding more than doubled; defensive pass interference went up 25 percent. Refs threw 561 more flags against defenders for those three violations in 2015 compared to 2009.
Trump told his fans that “I’ll be criticized for that” in light of the pearl clutching over player safety, which grew in volume after Will Smith’s critically-acclaimed film Concussion opened on Christmas. The movie focuses on football’s resistance to groundbreaking research into the link between head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a devastating form of brain damage linked to the deaths of several stars. Writers imagined that the film would hurt the league even worse than the $765 million lawsuit that the league settled with 4,500 former players.
The filmmakers practically begged for a lawsuit, using team and league logos and backdrops without permission as Luke Wilson’s Roger Goodell dances around the issue at a press conference.
“Sony did a remarkable thing. They got righteous and aggressively said, ‘God dammit, If they want to sue us, they can.’ If they sued that would be a good story in itself,” writer-director Peter Landesman told Showbiz411. “We got to show how beautiful the game is. We want people to walk out [and think about football] it’s beautiful and it will kill you.”
One would expect Concussion to generate a greater PR offensive. The entire sport is on trial. The world’s biggest movie star is saying he won’t let his son play football. Yet the NFL doesn’t seem to have an unkind word in its body.
“We welcome any conversation about player health and safety,” a league spokesman told Sports Illustrated when asked about the film. “Broader and deeper awareness of these issues will positively impact all athletes.”
It’s a curious response until you consider that the NFL loves talking about player safety. Many observers and former players attribute the focus on player safety to NFL efforts to expand its female audience, which has doubled in recent years. A 2012 Washington Post poll found that women were 30 percent more likely than men to say, “something needs to be done” to cut down on concussions.
But appealing to women—the largest untapped market and a demographic cherished by advertisers—is just a side benefit. The real reason the NFL owners love to focus on safety is because it allows them to ignore the lack of protection in player contracts. Only about half of NFL contract money is guaranteed against injury- or skill-related decline in America’s most violent sport, and team owners pressure one another to keep it that way. They offer signing bonuses and incentive-laden deals, rather than giving players actual security.
The league reported a 36 percent drop in head injuries between 2012 and 2014. This did not make the game any safer from other significant injuries; the number of players placed on Injured Reserve—typically used for season-ending injury—actually increased by about 20 percent from 2013 to 2014. More than 460 players were placed on IR this year, up from 388 in 2009.
Leg injuries were the most common reason for IR designations, no surprise as the players try to avoid penalties for high tackles. An NFL player earns his living on his legs, which is why a bad knee is more likely to end a career than a head injury. A player who suffers a season-ending knee injury will continue to get paid during the recovery time prescribed by team doctors. That only lasts during the season in which the injury occurs. If he loses a step going into the following season the team can cut him no matter how many years are left on the contract and pocket whatever is not guaranteed. Nice words about safety cover up the fact that the league continues to shortchange players.
Owners are dealing from a position of strength and they know it. There’s no rival league. The NFL Player’s Association that negotiates contracts is a “JV team” at best, as one league observer told ESPN. The billionaire team owners also realize that the average American sees millionaire NFL players as spoiled.
It’s tough to sympathize with someone whose minimum wage catapults him into the 1 percent. But we should care. These men have built football into a $13 billion industry. They do so at great personal risk, which will not diminish as long as football remains a contact sport. If you can’t bring yourself to do so for player justice, then do it for yourself as a fan. If you’re tired of referees deciding the outcome of games; if you miss the “beautiful tackle”; if you’re frustrated by players failing to dive for a ball because they fear injury, then you should demand guaranteed contracts.
NFL players have not gone soft; their union has. It will have consequences going forward, according to Trump.
“It’s going to affect the NFL. I don’t even watch it as much anymore. It’s going to affect the NFL. I don’t watch it. The referees, they want to all throw flags so their wives see them at home. ‘Oh, there’s my husband.’ It’s true. ‘He just broke up—he just gave a 15-yard penalty on one of the most beautiful tackles made this year.’ Right?”
Here’s hoping that Mr. Art of the Deal ends his presidential ambitions to campaign for head of the NFL Players Association.