When several players protested police brutality as the national anthem was played prior to the NFL’s first slate of preseason games earlier this month, everyone knew what was coming the following morning: “The NFL players are at it again,” the president of the United States tweeted before going on to suggest that those not standing for the anthem should be “Suspended Without Pay!” For three seasons now, Trump has gleefully dragged America’s most popular sport into mainstream political discourse. The NFL’s response has been confused, to say the least, which has become an increasingly common way of describing the league’s handling of anything remotely controversial, from sexual assault allegations to whether a few footballs were properly inflated.
Few have been afforded as intimate a view of the league-in-crises as Mark Leibovich, the New York Times Magazine writer who has spent most of his career covering politics. He turned his focus to football four years ago, after an assignment to cover Tom Brady led him into the bowels of an organization that, not unlike Washington, D.C., is run by a cartoonish, often incompetent collection of wealthy billionaires, and a commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has habit of bungling just about every high-stakes issue to come across his table. The result of Leibovich’s immersion in the inner-workings of the league — which included countless interviews with owners, players and Goodell — is Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, which was released September 4th by Penguin.
The book is unsparing in its criticism of the circus of unimpeachable carnival barkers that preside over one of the country’s most successful entertainment organizations. At the same time, Leibovich’s perspective is funny, charming and personal. Like many Americans, he’s loved the game his entire life, even as it has become problematic. “We all have things we have to sort of swallow and apologize for,” he recently explained to Rolling Stone. “At the end of the day you just want to watch the game and hope your team wins.”
Leibovich spoke to Rolling Stone ahead of the book’s release about some of the issues facing the league, the relationship between Goodell and the owners and, of course, President Trump.
The book isn’t exactly a flattering portrayal of Roger Goodell and the NFL owners. You had a ton of access to them over the course of the four years you were working on it. What do you think they expected? What kind of story do you think they wanted told about the league and how it’s run?
The short answer is that it beats me. I don’t know why they would let me hang around to the extent that they did. I’ve gotten the same question a lot over the years covering politics. It helps because, especially in the NFL, they’re used to a certain level of deference. There’s a very club-ish kind of media culture around the NFL both locally and around the league itself. The owners sort of see themselves as kings of these little kingdoms. It’s not dissimilar to a U.S. senator basically thinking he or she has their own kingdom as someone who runs a big Senate office and has a big constituency. So there’s a lot of overlap. But I don’t know. I can’t pretend to know what they expected to come out of this. I guess I tried to be somewhat open and curious about what I was looking for, and I think it helped not to be a sportswriter because they didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions of me — although they could’ve easily checked just by Googling. This is not the world I’m used to operating in so I guess I was fortunate to have a relatively fresh set of eyes.
Were there any other things that struck you or any little nuanced similarities about covering the NFL versus covering Washington?
If you look at elected officials, the big, mega difference between, say, a U.S. senator and an NFL owner is that NFL owner doesn’t have to run for re-election. There’s certainly a power of incumbency if you’re in Congress or in the Senate or in a governor’s office, but [in the NFL] you cannot dislodge [an owner from a team] unless there’s some sort of extraordinary event. They’re not held accountable and Roger Goodell is only accountable to them. If he can please the owners, they’re going to pay him a ton of money and that’s sort of where his focus is. In not having to run for re-elections, owners don’t get subjected to the rough-and-tumble of a campaign every two or four or six years. Politicians become more naturally thick-skinned and they just sort of learn how to be public athletes (if that’s a term) better than an NFL owner could. [NFL owners] are a rather entitled group, and I’m not sure if many of them could get re-elected. I don’t know how Dan Snyder would do if he were put up for re-election to the fans of the Washington Redskins.
The book is really an in-depth chronicle of the relative hard times the league has fallen on in the past few years. I always think of the Ray Rice incident, which began to unfold around when you started working on the book, as the moment where the shield kind of started to crack. Do you feel like there was a specific inflection point that got the snowball rolling down the hill?
[The Ray Rice incident] did seem to sort of signal a thing where every single year there was some kind of self-inflected shit show. I mean, you could argue that Roger Goodell’s winning streak as far as being a relatively popular commissioner and also handling things in a way that people basically respected came to an end around Bountygate. He had a run of pretty well-received disciplinary cases in his first few years — the Michael Vick thing and there were some other on-field things. But then Bountygate hit him really hard, and then Paul Tagliabue, his predecessor, just sort of reversed everything and said this was a very flawed investigation and so that became a mess. Every year after that it seemed like there was a new “gate.” There was Ray Rice. There was Deflategate. There’s the anthem thing, which is not entirely his fault, but there’s always something. You get all the owners fighting last year. It’s just a more polarized time, in general. It’s a much more tribal time. Trump just sort of makes everything more divisive, and the league is no different. There has definitely been a since in the time since I’ve been paying attention that the league can’t get out of its own way.
Do you think the league has been too worried about the impact of Trump’s comments?
I don’t think they necessarily mishandled it. [Goodell] basically rode out the storm last year. I think a huge mistake on his part last year would’ve been instituting some kind of knee-jerk, draconian, everyone-stand rule. Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder and Bob Kraft and some of the more conservative owners were in his ear about that. Trump was obviously calling for it and I assume there were some sponsors who were doing the same. He could’ve just done that and it would’ve been a disaster because there would’ve been a terrible backlash and it would’ve pissed off the players. It would have looked like he caved under pressure. The only way you deal with that is just to ride it out. You knew Trump was going to pipe up again and there’s really not a lot you can do about it. Every time he does pipe up there’s like some diminishing return. When he talks about the NFL like when he did last week, he gets far less attention than he did when he brought up the anthem thing the first time.
“When you hear how scared these owners are of Donald piping up again, you do get a sense of how in their heads he is.”
For some reason, though, in May, Goodell and the league just said, “OK, by the way, if you’re going to protest, stay in the locker room.” That was a disaster and I don’t know why they did it. It was such a disaster that they basically flip-flopped after about six weeks and now they have no clue. There’s something in the book describing how me and my colleague Ken Belson overheard this secret recording of a private meeting between a bunch of owners and players last October. When you hear how scared these owners are of Donald piping up again, you do get a sense of how in their heads he is.
Before hearing that recording, did you have a sense of how much confusion there was around how to handle the protest issue? Did you realize how much disconnect there was between the owners and the players?
I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t have a clue about what to do. I guess I was surprised about the degree to which so many of them just sounded like such dipshits. Listening to Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Bills owner, just like talk about, “Oh, we need a black Charlton Heston, and we need a spokesperson,” He sounded really kind of weird and ridiculous. Donald this, Donald that. I mean he was just like, “Well, we just need to put a band-aid on this, and we have to make sure Donald doesn’t pipe up again.” You do get a sense that if you were a corporation, these are not people that you would select to be on your corporate board. And yet, they’re the most powerful entertainment executives in the country and certainly their own markets. Ironically, Terry Pegula outbid Donald Trump for the Buffalo Bills in 2014, so they could’ve just avoided the whole thing by giving the team to Trump and then they probably wouldn’t be worried about the White House as much as they are right now. They wouldn’t have Terry Pegula to worry about either.
Goodell doesn’t come off very favorably in the book, either. You really get into what motivates him, and write about his relationship with his father and how he is compelled to make all of these older men, the owners, proud of him. Do you think he feels that way toward Trump?
He would certainly fit perfectly into the demographic. He’s got a huge ego, obviously. But I don’t sense that Roger Goodell has any regard whatsoever for Donald Trump, and I think the feeling’s mutual. Part of it with Goodell is that Trump is coming after his league. If you’re running a private business and the president is attacking your business, you’re probably not going to like him. Goodell came up through the league over three decades and [former commissioner] Pete Rozelle, who was his mentor and who had zero use for Donald Trump back in the USFL days in the ’80s, when Trump wanted into the NFL. I think that Goodell thinks about him just as a big and very serious nuisance, but I don’t think that he concerns himself that much with any kind of weird relationship the two of them have to have.
Has it surprised you that there haven’t been more #MeToo allegations against owners like there were against [former Carolina Panthers owner] Jerry Richardson? Do you think the league or the franchises are set up in a way that insulates the people in power more effectively than in other industries?
I don’t know about the league. I mean, I think certainly that as we’ve learned, beginning with the president of the United States, that when you have a ton of money you can pay people off and they go away or they remain quiet. Jerry Richardson basically tried to do that. I’d be very surprised if a whole bunch of other owners don’t have something like on their rap sheet — or in their vault, I guess.
I know I can say that the league is concerned that there will be others, and it wasn’t even for lack of [the owners] sort of privately encouraging me to talk to people around certain owners and certain markets, you know, and certain jurisdictions or certain police forces or whatever, in a way that could embarrass one of their rivals. I mean, it’s very petty and does remind me in many ways of a dirty political campaign. I assume there are a lot of owners who are nervous about becoming like the next Jerry Richardson.
The NFL is having a lot of issues, obviously, and there was an interesting quote in the book from Jerry Jones about how the league is able to survive despite them. He told a story about how a friend who owned some Howard Johnson hotels preached “intensity” to keep everything consistent from franchise to franchise, and how “intensity covers up a lot of frailty in the taste and preparation.” If something is supposed to be cold, make it ice cold, and so on. How do you think this lesson applies to the NFL?
I love that quote. I love the imagery there. I think the NFL is a very intense and a very hot entity. The fans care a lot about what the league does — disciplining players and their policies and the rule changes and stuff like that. So the NFL is sort of blessed with that. But it’s not a subtle league, either. They do the bells and whistles as well as any entertainment company. But the bottom line is that the league will probably survive, but it’s because of the greatness of the sport and the product, and it’s in spite of the people who run and own it. They’re like drug lords and we’re a nation of football junkies. It’s good for business and it probably means that they can print money for a while, which isn’t to say that there aren’t very real “existential issues” that are affecting the game.
Do you see any of these singular issues as the biggest threat to the welfare of the game going forward, whether it be Trump and politics or the game getting more violent or the CTE and concussion issue? What are the owners most worried about, and what should they be most worried about?
My sense is the owners are not the most forward-thinking people. Part of it is that a lot of them are really old and a lot of them have very complicated family inheritance dynamics. Insomuch as they’re worried about the future of the game, in many cases, they’re worried about how it’s going to work with their heirs and stuff.
“My sense is the owners are not the most forward-thinking people.”
The thing about politics and Trump is a short-term issue, ultimately. The league has become a very polarizing brand, obviously, but I think the sport used to be a much more unifying thing. There’s a chapter in the book about the first Super Bowl right after Trump took over, Super Bowl LI was just about ten days after [Trump was inaugurated] and it was the New England-Atlanta one. Trump was always dropping Tom Brady and Bob Kraft’s name. They became the team of Trump. I remember being down there and just Brady was just sort of warding off all of these political questions. Politics is pretty inescapable but you do get a sense that it’ll subside at some point.
There are some really, really big issues — technological issues like cord cutting and these things that they don’t have their heads around. Then there’s purely financial things like insurance and whether people will be able to play football or even get insurance policies. There’s some regulatory threats. There are a lot of directions in which they could really see themselves get hurt. So I do get a sense of real nervousness and precariousness, but at the same time they’re all just obscenely successful and wealthy and they’re playing in the toy department. The angst is not really on the surface.
Do you think there’s any chance that a team does sign [Colin] Kaepernick this year?
Maybe. I think every year he doesn’t play it gets harder, just because he gets older and he’s away from the game. No team really wants a cause célèbre. The guy hasn’t been a starting quarterback in three years. He didn’t play at all last year. It gets tougher, I’m sure. I heard that Goodell tried to make some kind of backchannel overtures last year to maybe encourage teams to take a look at him, but ultimately it’s a decision of the coaches and the owners and as a general rule these are not people who are going to a roster slot, especially a quarterback slot, on some kind of social statement.
At today's meeting between @NFLPA reps & @NFL execs/owners, I plan to share this viral video of @RepBetoORourke being asked if NFL players kneeling is disrespectful. The tone he sets makes me proud to be a Texan & gives me hope that a productive dialogue is possible [THREAD] https://t.co/HZeALcmOR0
— Russell Okung (@RussellOkung) August 27, 2018
Russell Okung tweeted recently about how he was planning on showing the video of Beto O’Rourke defending the protests during the anthem at a meeting between the league and the players’ association. Did you hear anything about if that happened and how that meeting may have gone?
Hopefully we’ll get a recording and we’ll just be able to hear it ourselves. That’s what happened last time. Another thing you hear from the recording I heard and the last time they all got together is that the players who are in those meetings — like Malcolm Jenkin and Russell Okung and Chris Long — are activists. They care enough to schlep down to New York, or, in Russell’s case, across the country, to be there and you do get a sense there was a real disconnect even last October. The players’ preoccupation is about Colin Kaepernick not getting a job, and the owners were basically, “Well, can you just stop kneeling and maybe Donald will stop?” It was kind of a pathetic disconnect.
I think it’s going to be an interesting year, I think one of the few inevitabilities about it will be that Trump will pipe up. He loves the issue because he gets to be in the middle of the NFL even though he wasn’t allowed in as a member. He gets to be in everyone’s heads and everyone’s face and he feels it’s a great and winning issue for him. He’s said as much. The midterms are coming up and it’s not like he’s got any big legislative victories coming down the pipe. It’s sort of perfect for him at this point.