One of the more fun types of play you'll see during any NFL game, is the play-action pass. It is an elaborate fake, involving the QB pretending to hand the ball to the running back while actually concealing the fact they have kept the ball and intend to throw it downfield for a touchdown. When it's done well it's deadly, making the defender think one thing is going on, when they should be worried about something else entirely.
In a week when Donald Trump supposedly 'went to war' with the NFL, the two were in fact pulling off their own version of the play-action pass. While we all were captivated by a row about players protesting during the National Anthem, the NFL and Donald Trump may have been distracting us from things far more dangerous.
For Trump, this is nothing new. As Presidential candidate and then as President he has shown a mastery of an ever-changing news cycle - able to change the narrative at a moment's notice with his next tweet. Whether it be attacking celebrities, tweeting out abusive GIFS or starting some ludicrous conspiracy, Donald Trump has been able to get us looking the other way at a moment's notice. In fact the very first time Trump railed about Colin Kaepernick was the day it was announced then CIA-Director James Comey had launched an investigation into Trump himself. This isn't a new move for Trump:
So why intensify the attack on the NFL, and why this week? It has become Trump's chosen target as a deliberate attempt to appeal to his notorious 'base'. His overwhelmingly white, rural supporters are generally both fiercely patriotic and big football fans. But the NFL isn't football, it's a big corporate organisation that has angered this group already by seeking to sanitize the violent game they love. Crucially Trump is attacking the players themselves, focusing on the fact these are exceptionally well paid athletes - turning it into another us-against-them, rich-vs-poor Trump argument (the fact Trump himself is both a millionaire and pursuing a tax policy that would help the rich is not so much ironic as outrageous). That's without going into the obvious racial undertones of Trump attacking overwhelmingly black athletes, who started protesting in the first place because of the treatment of black people in America.
So the attack is a proven winner for Trump, but why the timing. Well aside from being on the brink of war with North Korea, and having several US States and territories struggling in the wake of natural disasters (the Presidents response to Puerto Rico has been particularly criticised) Trump's Republican Party has once again failed to pass Healthcare reform in the last week. Having shouted about getting rid of 'Obamacare' for 7 years, a Republican controlled House and Senate still haven't managed to remove it, largely because the law is more popular than ever. The healthcare debate has become front and centre in popular culture in the States, with late night host Jimmy Kimmel notably leading the charge to save Obamacare:
It needed something big to take attention away, so it's perhaps no surprise this was the week Trump took on the most popular sport in America.
So what about the NFL then, how can they have benefitted from the President tweeting abuse at them upwards of 20 times in the last week. Well for starters, Trumps insertion gave the NFL license to become the good guy in the anthem protest debate. As this excellent article details, it obscured the original purpose of the protest, against discrimination against black people, and turned it into the NFL showing unity against Donald Trump. It meant rich white owners who had given money to Donald Trump could link arms with their players and look like social activists. It meant Roger Goodell, known as a hard-line opponent of player rights, suddenly became a great liberal champion and player advocate. Watching team's link arms ahead of Games you could well argue the NFL has never been more united, and it has Donald Trump to thank. It's certainly commendable for the NFL and its owners to support their player's right to protest, but the original meaning of this debate has undoubtedly been lost.
It goes beyond this new found unity though. The NFL understands the volatile nature of the news cycle as well as Donald Trump. As we spent all week talking about players protesting, we could have been talking about something that threatens the future of the very sport, and which the NFL would prefer we don't talk about at all: the brain injuries allegedly caused by playing football.
Just days before the latest round of player protests, it was revealed that Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL tight-end, became the latest former player to take his own life, this time while serving time in prison for murder. A hugely complicated story that could have had big consequences for the sport, but almost completely obscured by Trump and the protest narrative. Then just this week researchers at Boston University announced that they believed they may be able to diagnose CTE (the brain disease closely linked to playing football) in living players. It's one thing finding out posthumously the impact playing football had, but what if a 23 year old who has just joined the NFL is told they are suffering from brain injuries? What if insurance companies find out a player is suffering from CTE when they come out of college - will they even insure the player to step on the field in the NFL? A recent edition of The Ringer NFL Show gives a good examination of this. The effect of the concussion crisis on future players picking up the sport is well trodden ground, but certainly it poses a significant threat to the sport. Which is why the league would much rather we talk about unity, and player protests, and even Trump. Just look at the Thursday night game between the Bears and Packers last night. You'll see the NFL pushing out plenty of pictures of the two teams linking arms before the game:
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2017
What you won't see is the NFL sharing video of the vicious helmet to helmet hit that forced a player to be rushed to hospital:
TERRIBLE hit by #Bears' Danny Trevathan.
— Chris Stewart (@CStewartWPTV) September 29, 2017
The TV networks are complicit in this too, gruesome injuries are not good for ratings.
NFL players being able to stand up in protest is overwhelmingly a positive thing. But unfortunately Donald Trump, and the league itself, know how to seize an opportunity. Which is why it's important to see past the play-action deception and debate the original cause of player protests, debate the future of tackling, and explore the real issues affecting these sports and society as a whole. If we don't, we won't ever really solve them, and it will be on to the next distraction.