What is a team owner to do under pressure from the president of the United States?

CreditCreditPhoto illustration by Ben Grandgenett. Source photograph by Jessica Tang for The New York Times.

This was not your usual Super Bowl mob scene. It might have looked like it at first, on what the National Football League calls opening night, when it kicks off the holiest week of its year. The annual event has metastasized into a sprawling tumor of reporters yelling out questions — whether the Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has a favorite fish (yes: tilapia), whether the New England Patriots center David Andrews has a favorite breakfast cereal (yes: Cap'n Crunch, Crunch Berries) and whether the Patriots coach Bill Belichick knows about "Bill Belichick Underwear," a pair of which one TV reporter from Alaska claimed to be wearing (no: "Guess I missed that one," Coach mumbled).

But opening night in January 2017, Super Bowl LI, also offered something else: an early indication that professional football, like so many other American cultural institutions previously safe from partisan politics, would be twisted and pounded and very much transformed by the infant presidency of Donald J. Trump. "I'm not talking politics at all," Tom Brady insisted, responding to the several questions concerning just that — namely, his old golfing pal who had moved into the White House a few days earlier. "I'm just a positive person," Brady went on to say in what became his formulaic response. "I just want the best for everybody."

The media throng at Minute Maid Park in Houston did not play along. This was not going to be an Obama-era Super Bowl, much less one of those pre-high-def Super Bowls from back when coaches wore fedoras. The 45th president wasn't in attendance, but he had an uncanny knack, or need, to soak up as much attention as possible from the bizarre American moment he was leading the nation through. He was thrilled to inflict politics in every direction, even (or especially) onto the toy armies of pro sports. As with so many of Trump's fixations, this one came with a back story of personal grievance: repeated rejection in his efforts across four decades to buy an N.F.L. team. His most recent attempt was in 2014, when Trump tried to buy the Buffalo Bills. But an N.F.L. owner's box is so exclusive as to make even the White House a consolation prize.

Instead, Trump became a heckler from the bully pulpit. His attacks on the league began during the campaign, especially after Colin Kaepernick and then other players knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence against African-Americans. A week before the election, for example, at a campaign rally in Greeley, Colo., he jeered Kaepernick, citing the quarterback as a reason the N.F.L. was "way down in the ratings." Now, after his inauguration, he was basking in his victory. "Politics has become a much bigger subject than the Super Bowl," Trump boasted in the run-up to the big game. "This is usually Super Bowl territory, and now they're saying that the politics is more interesting to people," he said. "So that's good."

Not for the N.F.L., which, in its ham-handed, Kremlin-like way, went so far as to scrub from the event's official transcripts nearly every mention of "Trump" or "president." Nothing to see here, just football. "We offer a respite," Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner, once told me. "We are a respite that moves you away from your trials and missteps, or my trials and missteps."

But the folly of creating a safe space from Trumpian discord became more and more inescapable as Super Bowl week ground toward game day. Trump's relentless embrace of the Patriots, his touting of his friendships with Brady, Belichick and their team's owner, Robert Kraft, made it impossible for many citizens not to treat this game as a proxy war for our national divisions. White nationalists embraced the team from deeply liberal New England as their own. Richard Spencer dubbed Brady an "Aryan Avatar" and said the Patriots' winning the Super Bowl would be "a victory for the #AltRight." On the other side, about 40 percent of the Falcons' season-ticket holders were African-American, and the team's slogan was #RiseUp. The game felt like Make America Great Again versus The Resistance.

When Atlanta scored first, the reaction on Twitter reinforced the impression. "America 7 Trump voters 0," the parody account @NotBillWalton tweeted. "The Falcons respect an independent judiciary," the writer and critic Andy Greenwald added. During timeouts, partisans scrutinized the TV commercials, looking for signs that they were playing to the political moment. Did everyone see that Budweiser ad depicting the journey of the company founder, Adolphus Busch, as he immigrated to America from Germany? #BoycottBudweiser was up and running before halftime. "These commercials have been a bonanza of leftist activism," a Breitbart News editor complained. "Two immigration commercials, a feminist commercial, now an eco wacko commercial? Am I missing anything?"

Speaking as a Pats fan (sorry!), I was simply missing my football team. We were getting clobbered 28-3 well into the third quarter. Trump left his Super Bowl viewing party early. But he would be heard from again, and so would the Patriots, after they came back to win in overtime, 34-28. In the postgame commotion, someone swiped Brady's jersey (a heist Kraft would liken to "taking a great Chagall or Picasso"). The F.B.I. and other law-enforcement agencies eventually located it — in Mexico. Really, how on-message could Trump's team be?

By those early days of the Trump presidency, I had embarked on writing a book about the N.F.L., the country's most popular and prosperous sports league. In every empire, there comes a time when, despite all its riches and power and apparent invincibility, a catastrophic downfall seems to loom. I wanted to know: Had Peak Football been achieved? In a matter of years, the N.F.L. had for a variety of reasons (many of them self-inflicted) gone from being one of the most unifying institutions in America to the country's most polarizing sports brand. This was true before Donald Trump ever ran for anything. Still, I held out some naïve hope that this book project would offer me a respite from the perennial silly season of my day job, which is writing about politics. Maybe next book.

"You think Donald can really do this?"

Woody Johnson, the owner of the Jets, put that question to me at the first N.F.L. owners meeting I attended, in March 2016, at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. We were chatting at a reception that featured mountains of lobster and crab meat and more paella than I'd ever seen in my life. Johnson wore a white Jets baseball cap, a knapsack over both shoulders and a daydreamy expression that made him look like an overgrown third grader who collects toy trains and terrible quarterbacks. Trump at that time was stampeding his way through the Republican primaries. Johnson had served as the national finance chairman of Jeb Bush's ill-fated campaign until it was officially euthanized a few weeks earlier. Trump made a point of taunting Johnson via a tweet, saying, "If Woody would've been with me, he would've been in the playoffs, at least!" Johnson told me he was slowly warming up to Trump and hopeful that the candidate would act in a more restrained manner going forward.

I next encountered Johnson eight months later, on election night. It was around 2:30 a.m., and I passed him walking on 57th Street. He was coming from Trump's election-night party and wearing a Make America Great Again hat. The Johnson & Johnson heir, who had raised tens of millions of dollars for Trump, predicted to me that Trump's great victory would bring "hope" to all the "blue-collar guys" he knew in Staten Island. Yes, I said, but could Trump bring hope to the New York Jets? As it turned out, maybe he could — by sending Johnson out of the country. (Trump wound up appointing him ambassador to the United Kingdom.)

The degree to which Trump had become a preoccupation of N.F.L. owners cannot be overstated. A few days before Super Bowl LI, I published an article in which I quoted Trump from an older interview criticizing the Patriots owner Robert Kraft for not suing the league over Deflategate, the silly "scandal" about underinflated footballs. Kraft did not perform well under pressure, Trump told me in late 2015. "He choked, just like Romney choked." In Houston, Kraft pulled me aside at a pre-Super Bowl tailgate party. "Did Trump really say that I choked?" he wanted to know.

When I confirmed it, Kraft shook his head and appeared wounded, even with his team preparing to play in its seventh Super Bowl in 15 years. People kept coming over to give hugs and whisper into his ear, paying respects.

Jerry Jones, sharing a table with Kraft, was riding high, too, having just learned the night before that he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame with the class of 2017. Everyone knew that Jones had long craved the call to Canton — and all the deference paid to the gold jacket that comes with it.

Kraft, of course, felt the same, but his call had yet to come. As I watched the rival septuagenarians seated at the same table a few feet from each other, I wondered whether Jones would trade his gold jacket for another Super Bowl ring — or whether Kraft would trade one of his rings for a gold jacket.

I eventually put the question to Kraft in his office at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., a few months after he won his fifth title. "No way," he declared. Hall of Fame voting tends to be political. "A ring is earned," he said. "It means you've out-managed your competition and you've managed excellence at the highest level. To me, that's more of a turn-on."

When I asked the same of Jones, his response was somewhat less clear. "Oh, boy," he kept saying. "Boy. Boy! Boy! Boy! Boy." We were sitting aboard the Dallas Cowboys' bus in the parking lot of a golf course not far from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. As a general rule, the Dallas Cowboys' bus is not a place for the faint of heart or liver.

"I do like to have a drink," Jones confirmed, something I'd heard from a few people. "Do you want a shot of Scotch?" he asked me. Sure, I said, not realizing that by "shot," Jones was talking about large blue plastic souvenir cups bearing the Cowboys' logo, soon to be filled (and refilled) with Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Jones's favored libation.

I relay this by way of transparency into Jones's inhibitions, which were relaxing rapidly. When I asked him again whether he would trade his gold jacket for another ring, Jerry's face assumed a kind of happy grimace at this high-class dilemma. Finally, he answered. "No," he said.

Sitting a few feet away, Rich Dalrymple, the Cowboys' longtime head of public relations, shook his head. "You messed that one up," he told his boss. Dalrymple wanted Jones to amend his answer to "another Super Bowl ring." That would reassure fans that nothing was more important to their owner than winning another championship more than 20 years after the last one. Otherwise, it's just a rich guy's ego trip (which it is, of course, but you're supposed to hide it better).

Some of Jones's fellow owners have described him as the N.F.L.'s Donald Trump, a blustering billionaire showman easily dismissed as a carnival barker. When I asked Jones how he felt about this, he was thrilled. Trump's rise, he said, "is one of the great stories in America. And let me tell you this," he went on, "the president ain't no joke. He's got as good a chance to be right as any of them."

Several N.F.L. owners had known Trump for years, with Kraft being his highest-profile friend among them. (Kraft has given him a Super Bowl ring.) But Kraft, too, is a politician, of sorts, who seems to do his best to please as many audiences as he can; in part through having mastered the art of saying quite different things for public and private consumption. His friendship with Trump provides a case in point. Kraft loves being a presidential buddy but is also aware that many of his plutocrat friends don't approve. So Kraft is quick to mention to his friends — privately — that he disagrees with Trump on many issues and with many of the incendiary things the president has done and said. But he would rather have the presidential ear and try to be a positive influence. Arthur Blank, the Falcons owner, told me that Kraft tried to sell him on this line, but he wasn't buying. "I said, 'You [expletive], you've given him a lot of money,' " Blank told his friend Kraft (who disputes parts of Blank's account of their conversation). Blank's own line on Trump, which he says he also told Kraft, is that "there are things he's saying and doing that are not great for this country."

The N.F.L. has long possessed the charmed ability, or luck, to fold even its most embarrassing fiascos into its blockbuster reality show. I remember thinking as much when Tom Brady's Deflategate news conference was being carried live all over cable and leading all the news shows. What started out as a scandal quickly became an engrossing story line and a pleasing snack food following a season dominated by the heavy indigestion of Ray Rice and domestic violence.

The roiling politicization of the game, though, seems a different sort of problem — one unlikely to abate as long as Trump remains in office. As a Trump hobbyhorse, the anthem protests pack all the key elements: They provide a grand spectacle, undercut an institution that Trump feels personal spite toward and highlight an issue that he believes he can exploit for political gain. "This is a very winning, strong issue for me," Trump told Jerry Jones, according to a Wall Street Journal account of a deposition Jones gave in connection with the lawsuit that Colin Kaepernick has filed against the league. "You can't win this one," Trump said. "This one lifts me." Last September, at a rally in Alabama, he received cheers when he said about any player who knelt, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired!"

Since that first Super Bowl, Trump has neglected his bullying campaign against the N.F.L. for stretches, but his presence always hovers. Super Bowl LII was much less about the president than the year before — until he uninvited the champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House the day before the team's scheduled visit in June. The reason, Trump said, was that the Eagles disagreed "with their president" and his insistence that they "proudly stand for the National Anthem." (In fact, all of the Eagles did stand for the anthem last season; reportedly only a small number of players had planned to visit the White House anyway.)

A collision between Trump and pro football was probably inevitable: There was only so much room in the national head space for these dueling soap operas of American carnage. Now Trump gets to terrorize the club that would not have him as a member. It must give him immense satisfaction to know that the N.F.L. — on the eve of a new season — has no clue how to handle him or what to do about the national-anthem protests that a few players are still engaging in. Trump might not be allowed into the select membership of N.F.L. owners, but at least he still occupies prime real estate in their thoughts.

The league is "under assault," the Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula said in a private meeting between a group of players and owners and league executives at the height of the national-anthem crisis last fall — a recording of which was given to The New York Times this April. It was Pegula who, along with his wife, Kim, paid $1.4 billion for the Bills in 2014, beating out Trump for the team. Trump assured fans via Twitter that he had dodged calamity. "Wow, @N.F.L. ratings are down big league," he wrote shortly after the Pegulas bought the team. "Glad I didn't get the Bills."

It's an interesting thought experiment: What if Trump had got a team after all? Would he still have felt the need to run for president?

But we're left with the reality we have, and a president who keeps returning to football as a wedge issue — even a security blanket. "I'm calling on you to join me in denouncing this SPINELESS surrender to the politically correct liberal mob," Trump said in a fund-raising email sent out in late August after ESPN announced it would not be televising the national anthem before "Monday Night Football" games this season. It didn't seem like a coincidence that the email went out just one day after Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign-finance violations and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of eight tax and bank-fraud charges. On one of the worst days of his presidency, it seemed, Trump, too, was turning to football for a respite.

This article is adapted from "Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times," published by Penguin Press.

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the magazine.

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