Column: NFL owners’ reward for their Trump support? COVID-19 response that emptied stadiums

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Donald Trump.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Donald Trump attend a benefit together in 2010. Several NFL owners donated to Trump’s election campaign in 2016.
(Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images)

This week I moderated a panel comprised of representatives from the five professional sports teams in the Phoenix area. The topic was the role of sports in the social justice movement. Among the panelists was Michael Bidwill, owner of the Arizona Cardinals. Bidwill’s generosity and thoughtfulness has always made him a favorite of mine among NFL owners, so I was genuinely happy to see him healthy. A July bout with COVID-19 had sent the 55-year-old Bidwill to the hospital and there had been real concern from some of the people who know him best whether he would pull through.

When the topic of Colin Kaepernick came up, I asked Bidwill his opinion why Kaepernick had yet to be engaged seriously by any franchise. To say I was disappointed with his I-don’t-know answer would be an understatement. You know why Kaepernick hasn’t been called. I know why. Michael Bidwill knows as well.

Ever since the most powerful football fan in the world trained his sights on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the league has been scrambling to find ways to appease both him and his hyper-loyal, hyper-vocal base. NFL owners, following Donald Trump’s lead, pivoted the anthem conversation toward patriotism rather than the criminal justice reform it is really about.


Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill.
(Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

(Of course if the league was as patriotic as it fancies itself, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake would not have found the NFL — along with other leagues — were accepting millions from the Department of Defense to stage acts of patriotism such as pregame flyovers. Nothing undermines the sentiment of a phrase such as “I love you” like someone getting paid to say it. Now the NFL is no longer accepting funds for patriotism, but it’s clear the country had been played.)

And now it’s the NFL owners’ turn to be played. With the release of taped interviews between Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward and President Trump on Wednesday, we now know that Trump purposely downplayed the risks of the coronavirus.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on a call on Feb. 7, three days after briefly mentioning the virus during his State of the Union address and one day after the first U.S. coronavirus death was retroactively confirmed. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

Think about this: Trump privately admitted he knew how serious the coronavirus threat was a week after the Super Bowl but three weeks later, publicly characterized the virus as the latest Democratic hoax. On April 23, the first day of the NFL draft, Trump suggested using bleach as a treatment. The next day the country eclipsed 50,000 COVID-19 deaths. The country will likely eclipse 200,000 later this month.

A team-by-team look at the NFL team owners who collectively control football and the richest sports league in the world.

How many lives were lost because Trump purposely downplayed the threat? How many businesses were hurt? How much suffering has occurred? View it through a sports lens. Minor league baseball has been ravaged to the brink of extinction. Many high school seniors were robbed of a final season. Vendors, videographers, parking attendants all have gone without work to put food on their tables.

NFL stadiums are opening to largely empty stadiums this week — tonight’s season-opening Chiefs-Texans game will be played in front of 17,000 fans, or roughly one for every five seats in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium — because the pandemic wasn’t taken seriously enough by the politician to whom the owners of these stadiums have donated millions.

The politician who used their league as a proxy in the culture wars and who screamed at the NBA and U.S. women’s national soccer team to stick to sports even as he nakedly married sports and politics.

With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs are favored heavily in their season opener against the Houston Texans.

The politician who held a highly efficient, winning quarterback up as a totem of anti-Americanism even as that athlete championed the most sacred, if cynically manipulated, American value: equality. Bidwill’s Cardinals alone have had seven starting quarterbacks since Kaepernick last took a snap. Still, four years later, he is trying to convince audiences he has no idea why Kaepernick hasn’t received a call.

He knows why.

I know why.

We all know why.

Don’t get this twisted. This isn’t about Democrats vs. Republicans. This is a President Trump-versus-the-NFL conversation, which has taken a critical turn now that Trump has admitted he purposely downplayed the dangers of the virus at a time in which the truth could have saved all of us a lot more than grief, but lives. Nine owners contributed nearly $8 million to Trump’s inauguration committee alone, including $1 million from the Rams’ Stan Kroenke, whose shiny new $5-billion stadium sits empty because of the pandemic.

If I was an NFL team owner, I would not be happy about the loss of revenue the pandemic will cause. I would be angry knowing that loss of millions might have been avoided had the president I had supported with millions had not lied to the public about the virus. I would feel foolish supporting that president again. But I’m not an NFL owner. I’m just a guy wondering if NFL stadiums would be packed this week had the country taken COVID-19 seriously back in February when the president clearly knew better, but opted not to do better.