Just when the NFL was 10 weeks through a clean season, mostly free of controversy, with TV ratings up 6% over last year, two political stories that hounded the league two seasons ago are resurfacing.
Last Tuesday, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has not played a snap in the NFL since 2016, tweeted out that he had heard from the NFL league office about a workout for NFL teams. He sounded optimistic: “I’ve been in shape and ready for this for 3 years, can’t wait to see head coaches and GMs on Saturday.”
It is no surprise, considering the two years of controversy and invective that swirled around Kaepernick’s kneeling protests, that the workout did not go smoothly.
The NFL wanted to hold the tryout on a Saturday (workouts of this type are typically on Tuesdays, not on Saturdays when coaches are busy preparing for Sunday games) at the Atlanta Falcons practice facility, and wanted Kaepernick to sign an unusual waiver written by an outside law firm and designed to protect the NFL from future employment liability. Kaepernick, at the last moment, moved the location of the workout to a high school field an hour away from the original location; 25 of the 32 NFL teams had sent representatives to the Falcons location, but only eight of those reps went to see him at the replacement location.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that one of the NFL execs at the workout called Kaepernick’s arm “elite” and said it looked “the same as when he came out of college.” But it looks highly doubtful any team will come calling.
And while some pundits (including ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith) are now criticizing Kaepernick for not helping his chances of getting back onto a team, the NFL does not look good here either. Slate called the workout “bizarre.” Yahoo Sports NFL columnist Charles Robinson called the whole thing a “Trojan horse” that “created multiple outcomes that could all be weaponized against the league’s Kaepernick problem.”
In the end, the only clear outcome of the workout was that it brought the NFL’s “Kaepernick problem” back to the forefront, reigniting an issue that had largely gone away.
And then there’s President Trump, who called Kaepernick a “clown” and tweeted angrily throughout 2017 and 2018 about the NFL and the kneeling protests. Trump, for two seasons, used the NFL as a political punching bag.
Now he’s looking to use the NFL as a campaign platform.
On Tuesday, Sports Business Journal reported that the Trump reelection campaign “has agreed on the broad terms” to buy a Super Bowl ad from Fox. A 30-second ad is going for $5.6 million. (Trump ran a campaign ad during Game 7 of the World Series on Fox, but the price of that ad was not in the same stratosphere: $250,000.)
SBJ cautions that the contract is not yet signed and the campaign could still opt out. Super Bowl 54 is on Feb. 2 in Miami, one day before the Iowa caucuses.
The irony here is clear. Trump, who slammed the NFL for two years and whose ire over the player protests certainly contributed at least partially to a two-season ratings decline, also recognizes the power of the NFL television audience.
Super Bowl viewership last year fell to a 10-year low, but more than 100 million people tuned in. Nothing else on live television commands that many eyeballs.
If the Trump campaign does run an ad, expect it to bring a cloud of political controversy back to the NFL, just as the Kaepernick tryout has. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Yahoo Finance in September: “Politics are not good for us in any way.”