Thirty years ago, the NFL fended off an aggressive challenge from a football league involving Donald Trump. Now that Donald Trump is preparing to become the President of the United States of America, his attitudes toward football coupled with the appetites of the same group of overlooked and ignored Americans who propelled him into power while the media was overlooking and ignoring a large swath of Americana could present a new threat to the league.
The NFL’s ongoing efforts to make the game safer must always be balanced against preserving the fundamental nature and appearance of the game. In other words, the league must at all times consider whether the game will still look and feel like football.
In several respects, the current product doesn’t look like football — at least not like the football with which America had grown accustomed before Commissioner Roger Goodell was summoned to Capitol Hill in October 2009 with the not-so-subtle message that if he doesn’t clean up his sport Congress will do it for him. Hits that previously were celebrated now trigger penalties and fines (and ultimately suspensions), a dynamic fueled by the NFL’s quest to placate the politicians and assuage the fears of football moms by trimming as many concussions as possible out of the game.
Now that everyone who puts on a helmet knows the risks and, perhaps more importantly, the political meteorology has shifted from a stiff breeze in one direction to gale-force winds in the other, the NFL no longer has to worry about governmental representatives worrying that the game is too rough. Instead, the NFL has to worry about the man seen as the ultimate face of government peppering the league with criticism that it’s not nearly rough enough.
Lurking between the lines of an excellent and incredibly lengthy article from Greg Bishop and Michael McKnight of SI.com regarding the current state of football in America is a vague sense that plenty of Americans would welcome the return of old-school football. If the league won’t or can’t do it, then maybe someone else will. Someone who would compete with the NFL by embracing the violence and the brutality in the same way that the UFC does, making no apologies for it and ensuring that every participant signs all appropriate paperwork acknowledging in plain terms a warning as bold and as clear as the Surgeon General’s message on every tobacco product that has been sold in the decades since the dull sense that smoking may not be good for you was backed up by actual science.
At the risk of this blurb becoming an incredibly lengthy article before I ever get to the proof for the hypothesis that the time possibly has arrived for someone to launch the Old School Football League (trademarked . . . not really), consider some of these quotes from Bishop and McKnight.
“The fans are more interested in football,” Goodell told them. “We are the ones who make safety a priority. They support that because they want to see their players play. . . . I’d be fooling you if I don’t say: I hear guys that say, Just let them play.”
And so if the NFL won’t “just let them play,” maybe someone else will.
The President-Elect, who chided the NFL’s approach to concussion safety on the campaign trail, shot his mouth in Reno that “the whole game is so screwed up.” While that may be another example of Trump the Candidate saying things that Trump the President won’t, it makes sense to pay attention to anything and everything Trump the President says about football. If, after all, it was newsworthy when Barack Obama said that he wouldn’t let the son he doesn’t have play football, it will be newsworthy whenever Donald Trump speaks on the subject — especially since his youngest child is a boy who is approaching football age.
Consider this from Hall of Fame president David Baker, who met with Trump in September. The two men discussed among other thing the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to “save football” more than 100 years ago.
“We may be at another Teddy Roosevelt moment,” Baker told Bishop and McKnight. “We understand the game has been under attack. Because of concerns over concussions or the violence in the game, it has somehow become politically incorrect to speak out for football.
“I believe there is an incredible silent majority out there that loves this game, that think it’s valuable. If you ever tried to take it away from them, they would stand up for it.”
Taking that in another direction, that “incredible silent majority” may flock to watch football the way it used to be played, with all of the big hits and other moments that the NFL has been steadily scrubbing out of the game.
Peppered throughout the article are quotes from fans who express regret regarding changes to the rule that have altered the football-watching experience. Those attitudes from fans coupled with the messages that invariably will be sent by the incoming Commander-in-Chief suggest that the time may be right for someone to roll the dice with $250 million or so in the hopes of launching a football league that would essentially operate like a modern-day XFL — loud, proud, violent, brutal, bloody, and everything that the NFL was before political, legal, and social sensitivities forced the league to change.
It’s an experiment that would be interesting to watch unfold, especially since it wouldn’t be my money that would potentially be disappearing in the same way that each dollar invested in every alternative to the NFL since the merger has. All circumstances considered, however, the time may be right for someone to round up any and all willing gladiators and give the silent majority something that will make them cheer loudly.