In July, presidential candidate and Home Alone 2 star Donald Trump announced that he was displeased by the scheduling of the 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton. Specifically, Trump said, “I’ll tell you what I don’t like: It’s against two NFL games. I got a letter from the NFL saying, ‘This is ridiculous.’ ” The NFL immediately noted that it had sent no such letter — while admitting, “We obviously prefer the debates on a different night than scheduled games” — and Trump’s maneuver was widely seen as an attempt to either maximize his leverage on debate rules or get out of debating altogether. (We’re almost to November, people. Hang in there.)
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was that few questioned Trump’s complaint: that scheduling a debate opposite an NFL game was a really bad idea, like putting one on Christmas or something. Would Trump have argued that a debate opposite the final episode of Breaking Bad be scrubbed? Or the night of the Grammys? Of course not. Because when you’re talking about America — particularly the sort of America Trump’s talking about — you’re talking about the NFL. Four of the top-ten-rated shows on network television in 2014–15 were NFL-related; the seven most-watched U.S. television broadcasts of all time are the last seven Super Bowls. Which poses the question: Hey, I thought football was dying?
Football’s supposed death knell has been ringing for years now. Malcolm Gladwell compared football to dogfighting in 2009; in 2012, Jets linebacker Bart Scott, considered one of the biggest, baddest men in the NFL, told a reporter, “I don’t want my son to play football,” sounding like a coal miner who wanted a better life for his kids. He was far from alone, with Hall of Famers past and future like Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Troy Aikman, RNC speaker Fran Tarkenton, and Adrian Peterson all joining in, saying they’d never let their kids play. (Peterson missed most of a season for beating his son with a switch, so you know the man knows from safety.) Fox broadcaster Terry Bradshaw said he imagined football would be less popular than soccer “in the next decade.” The pile-on was total, assisted by the NFL’s ham-fisted attempts to quell the existential threat to the game, including commissioning a National Institutes of Health study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, but then pulling funding when it began to look like the study wasn’t going to lean in the NFL’s direction. This time last year, Will Smith, perhaps the biggest movie star in the world, was starring in Concussion, a big-budget Hollywood Oscar hopeful in which the Fresh Prince screamed, “Tell the truth!” at fictionalized NFL executives and physicians who were trying to cover up the fact that their game kills its players.
The film flopped. Nobody cared. Television ratings for 2015 games were up from 2014, and so on. The American public has listened to all the arguments about the immorality and dangers of football, and they have responded by … watching more football. I’m sorry, Mr. Bradshaw, but however scary CTE makes football seem, I’m not sure soccer’s gonna catch up.
The PR gauntlet the NFL has survived wasn’t just about concussions. The league has stared down an extraordinary number of PR nightmares over the past few years, almost all of its own making. Peterson’s child-abuse scandal? The gruesome Ray Rice domestic-violence saga? Deflategate? The unprecedented public antipathy toward commissioner Roger Goodell? The murder-suicide involving Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, a player who, shortly after killing his girlfriend, shot himself on team property in front of his coach? The piddling settlement agreed upon for players suing for medical benefits that was considered so unfair that a court threw it out? The NFL pancake-blocked every single one of these issues like Hall of Famer Mike Webster on a rollout pitch. (David Morse played Webster in Concussion.) These stories would have been crippling for any other organization, but the NFL just bulldozed right through them. Commissioner Goodell, a man so mocked that President Obama said he couldn’t believe how much money he makes, not only survived the Deflategate scandal but earned more than $31 million last year. That’s his lowest salary since 2011, and it’s more than the Cleveland Cavaliers paid LeBron James last year. Frankly, Goodell deserves it, no matter how imperious and autocratic and hypocritical he can seem. He’s making billions for the only bosses who count: the owners of the 32 NFL teams.
How did he manage this? Think of Roy Cohn’s advice to a young Donald Trump: “Tell them to go to hell.” The NFL never really admitted to any failings, never gave ground, and never stopped charging straight ahead on any of these issues. The NBA and MLB both have new commissioners who are media-friendly, telegenic, and available; they court the press and receive positive coverage. But Goodell and the NFL have taken the Cohn route: Cede nothing and floor it. When there was blood in the water, the NFL simply said, “There is no blood, and there is no water,” and counted on members of the American public to side with the game they love rather than the press that was telling them there was something wrong with them for loving it.
It reminds one of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s argument that concussions were a “journalist issue.” He was derided for the statement, but its strategic wisdom seems clearer every year: The press can call out the NFL all it wants, but until people stop watching football, it won’t make a difference. It points to a disconcerting emergency PR strategy that seems more and more common, and effective far beyond the world of professional sports: Just pretend there is no emergency, rely on the public’s distrust of the press, and wait for the media to punch itself out. One lesson of the NFL’s experience is that probably more of what were once considered PR disasters are ultimately “journalist issues,” more than any journalist would comfortably admit; if you can manage to grin and bear it through a first wave of outrage, chances are you can survive. Fans and customers, in a social-media era, can easily swim around media directives and pick and choose what they want. What they want, in this case, is football.
In fact, this preseason, it has been difficult to miss, considering the emotional temperature of the last few years, the near-total lack of “I Can’t Watch the NFL Anymore” hot-takes that are always populating Facebook feeds this time of year. It was briefly rather in vogue for a certain type of sportswriter (me, for one) to say that football was getting too morally corrupt to follow any longer, but turn on your television right now and, within a matter of minutes, you’ll get a commercial from either the NFL or one of its broadcasting partners, a house ad even, congratulating you on making it through the long, football-less offseason with the line “Back to Football.” There is no humility here. There is just a celebration. The message is clear: It’s okay to love football without apology again.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans want their kids to play it; a Bloomberg study in late 2014 showed that 62 percent of families making more than $100,000 do not want their children to play football, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that that percentage has risen since then. But there’s a big difference between not wanting your kids to play football and not wanting to watch football. They’re obviously still watching. In fact, more of them are. For the wealthy — that is to say, the decision-makers — in this country, it turns the NFL into something like the military. They’d rather their kids not take part, but they’d happily support your kids’ doing so. As it turns out, Donald Trump and the NFL might have a lot more than just some scheduling conflicts in common after all.
*This article appears in the September 5, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.