By Jesse Berrett
Halfway through this NFL season, one that saw President Donald Trump declare war on professional football players because of ongoing political protests during pregame national anthems, it seemed clear that 50 years of careful political positioning had rebounded on the league. Under media-savvy commissioner Pete Rozelle, between 1961 and 1966, the NFL built a publishing arm, a licensing arm, a film-making arm, and even a lobbying arm. The NFL used these instruments to rise to prominence by aligning itself with conservative political forces and then asking them for favors, more out of a burning desire to surpass baseball as the national pastime than to make an explicit political statement. Conservative politicians and social critics, for their part, consistently turned to football to burnish their regular-guy credentials and appeal to Middle America. It was a balance that served both sides.
Some of the resonances began as simple metaphoric linkages, as with the military register preferred by NFL Films, whose first production, the 1963 film The NFL’s Longest Day, riffed on the recently released D-Day epic, The Longest Day. By the mid-60s, NFL Films consciously shaped football-on-film into an active part of the war effort by appropriating military language like “search and destroy.” Between 1966 and 1971, NFL Films’ highlight packages built morale and extended the NFL’s (and America’s) soft power—while adeptly mingling the two—across the globe. Secretary of State William Rogers brought a supply on tour in the Far East. Air Force One flew a film to President Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Texas, while President Richard Nixon ordered a big-hits special for the White House. In 1971, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird publicly pledged “a two-minute bureaucratic drill” to ensure that the Armed Forces Network provided servicemen with more televised football.
In addition to being shipped to Vietnam, these films were shown on transcontinental flights; at the Continental Hotel in Paris, where homesick fans could savor the national pastime while munching hot dogs; on Navy submarines; even in Saudi Arabia, where oil companies ordered copies of the films to console “American workers far from home.” As one reviewer wrote, NFL Films’ magnum opus, They Call it Pro Football, presented an “action-packed display of the beauty and violence of the game—and its impact on the entire country.”
At least half of this new importance derived from political actors eager to purchase the NFL’s new currency. “When I mention Nixon’s knowledge of sports, [people] immediately seem to show a great interest in him. . . . This creates a great rapport with sports fans everywhere,” one worker for the Nixon presidential campaign wrote in 1968. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s campaign enlisted prominent athletes (including Big Daddy Lipscomb, Lenny Moore, Chuck Bednarik, Alan Ameche, Norm van Brocklin, and Johnny Unitas) to endorse him, and by 1968 the process was in full swing, with every candidate’s campaign organization boasting an athletic-endorsement apparatus. The brochure for Athletes for Nixon in 1968 prominently featured Bart Starr’s exhortation to support “the Number One quarterback calling signals for my team.” That QB1, Richard Nixon, did the most to cement the connection between the NFL and the Republican presidents by becoming the first president to attend an NFL regular-season game, publicly honoring Vince Lombardi, and corresponding with the Redskins’ George Allen, whom he thanked after his overwhelming victory in 1972: “it would be impossible for me to repay you adequately for all the work you did during the campaign.”
In addition to his famously unsuccessful play-calling, Nixon also sent Allen golf balls, wired him congratulations on his multifarious trades, frequently called him at home, invited him to a state dinner, and turned up at practice to rally the troops at a crucial point in Allen’s first season. More than 450 players endorsed Nixon that year, but Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern had their partisans as well.
The result was that, institutionally, NFL football positioned itself somewhere right of center. Radicals like Dave Meggyesy, who protested the anthem and the game itself, could be marginalized as long-haired freaks who had failed the essential test of manly Americanism that football posed. But liberal fans and players could enjoy the game without too much cognitive dissonance because, after making common cause with pro-war forces in the early 70s, the NFL generally avoided making such overt statements.
Similarly, Nixon’s presidency marked the greatest interplay between politics and professional football. His successors (even Gerald Ford, the best football player ever to become president) backed away from such overt identifications. As the disgusted liberal Republicans at the Ripon Society wrote after the 1972 election, Nixon’s team “suffered from a game plan mentality that led them to believe that the essence of politics was outpointing antagonists and adversaries. . . . It was often unclear whether they thought they were playing on a football field or a battlefield.” Sure, there were occasional protests when the league forced the Pentagon to subsidize its displays of patriotism in the 2000s. Yet that scandal blew over almost immediately; it’s striking how rarely it was brought up this fall. Institutionally, the league struck a careful balance: its PAC made almost equal donations to Republicans and Democrats from 2010-16.
But team owners’ donations consistently slanted Republican by about 4:1. Owners and the league itself donated nearly $8 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural. A fundamental disconnect arose between owners’ political commitments and those of some players and fans, though it remained mostly potential until this fall.
By going viral after Trump made himself a part of the schism, Colin Kaepernick’s protest blew up that equilibrium. Were the protests hurting the sport’s popularity? Maybe so. Ravens president Dick Cass blamed them for empty seats in Baltimore, though the average decline was only 400 seats per game. DirecTV offered refunds to any fans so disgusted by the spectacle of players’ kneeling that they felt impelled to cancel their Sunday Ticket subscriptions. On the other hand, Papa John’s CEO John Schlatter was forced to resign after blaming declining pizza sales on the protests. Some owners who had donated handsomely to Trump, such as Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan, broke with him; others, like Houston’s Bob McNair, who gave $3.6 million, 99% of it to Republican candidates, between 2008-14, initially supported the protests but then indulged in racially-loaded rhetoric that likened his players to inmates.
But who won? When kneeling was at its height in October and November, after late-September comments from President Trump that reinvigorated the protests on a national (if not global) stage, it seemed to have nudged the NFL a few inches leftward: it promised to donate $89 million to community organizations and otherwise react more positively to the protests—though not, significantly, to sign Colin Kaepernick, who had to watch a parade of blatantly inferior quarterbacks take the field. That donation-without-signing split the leaders among the protesting players, and by season’s end the number of kneeling players had dwindled measurably.
So what initially seemed to be a moment of reckoning for the NFL may now represent simply a more significant, but ultimately ineffectual, challenge to its historical practice of blurring lines. Will Colin Kaepernick ever take the field again? Will anyone protest at the Super Bowl, since its inception the NFL’s primary means of naturalizing its putatively non-ideological ideology? Stay tuned.
Jesse Berrett teaches history at University High School in San Francisco. He is the author of Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics, due out from the University of Illinois Press in April 2018. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @JesseBerrett.