What Donald Trump left out of his NFL offensive

Trump's criticism that the NFL has gone 'soft' needs to be seen in the context of his difficult business relationship with the game of pro football.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop in Windham, N.H. Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.

At a rally in Reno, Nev., on Sunday Donald Trump said that he’s bored with watching the NFL on television because he thinks pro football has gone “soft” – just like the nation itself.

That’s right, “soft." Weak. Lacking in virility. Overburdened with regulations meant to prevent concussions and other injuries.

The basic problem with football, according to The Donald, is that referees now penalize hard tackles that would have been legal when made by Hall of Fame defenders such as Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor back in the day.

“You used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch. Now the whole game is so screwed up,” said Mr. Trump.

Penalty flags fly as thick as confetti at a Trump rally. The game slows down. Outcomes get changed.

(Also, the referees are just trying to impress their wives, according to Trump. But he said that as kind of an aside to the main point.)

“Football has become soft like our country has become soft. It’s true, it’s true,” said Trump to applause at his Reno rally.

Hmm, well, there are obviously some points to be made in response to these assertions.

The first is that this criticism needs to be seen in the context of Trump’s difficult business relationship with the game of pro football.

Back in the mid-1980s, the real estate magnate owned the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League (USFL). He pushed hard for the fledgling league to move its games from the spring to the fall to directly challenge the NFL’s supremacy. The USFL collapsed shortly thereafter.

“The death of the USFL (United States Football League) was Trump’s folly,” writes Tommy Craggs of Deadspin.

Then, in 2014, Trump bid for the Buffalo Bills NFL franchise when it came up for sale upon the passing of its owner. His low-ball bid lost out. Later he professed relief that the burden of NFL ownership had not been thrust upon him.

“The @nfl games are so boring now that actually, I’m glad I didn’t get the Bills. Boring games, too many flags, too soft,” Trump tweeted in October 2014.

Second, nowhere in his “soft” rant did Trump mention the word “concussion.” He completely ignores the growing body of evidence that repeated blows to the head are endangering not just pro players, but football players at all levels. Thus the regulation of hard hits is not a gridiron-based form of political correctness, but an attempt to save and preserve the game itself.

Liberal news outlets leaped on this obvious point. The left-leaning Think Progress site titled its report on this contretemps, “Donald Trump Wants to Make Football Great Again With More Concussions.”

But news organizations that might be judged pro-Donald also differed with him on this point, albeit without snark. The right-leaning Breitbart News (actual recent story: “Phyllis Schlafly Makes the Case for President Trump”) noted that Trump’s “soft” complaint ignores the medical evidence of the danger of hard football hits and the obvious struggle of some retired stars with the long-term effects of tough play.

“Trump’s remarks came the day after the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals competed in an old-school, black-and-blue division affair and on the day that the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings played in sub-zero temperatures,” noted Breitbart’s William Bigelow.

But will the generally negative reaction to Trump’s football ideas make any difference to his voters? The answer to that, we would guess, is “no.” Pundits have declared many times that The Donald has finally gone too far with this or that, and his support will collapse. It hasn’t happened. Obviously the interaction between his assertions, his voters, and the truth is complicated.

Perhaps it is because they are misinformed. According to an interesting piece on this subject at the 538 data site, many of Trump’s voters show classic signs of being, not just uninformed on many topics of public policy, but misinformed.

Misinformed citizens believe in some things that conflict with expert opinion – such as that hundreds of Muslims celebrated on New Jersey rooftops following 9/11, or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is secretly converting the US to sharia law. They use their belief systems, not hard data, to fill in the rest of their “knowledge.”

These voters tend to be the most confident in their views and the most partisan, according to 538’s Anna Pluta. Attempts to convince them that they are wrong only make them cling more tightly to their misconceptions.

Thus, if Trump says the NFL is soft, it is indeed soft, his supporters believe. The long list of league injuries this season will likely do little to convince them otherwise.

“Don’t expect Trump’s fans to abandon him anytime soon,” Pluta concludes.

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