By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the world. U.S. President Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world.
But if one had its way, it would have nothing to do with the other. And in some ways, vice versa.
This week, in as fiery a political atmosphere as there has been surrounding a Super Bowl in recent memory, several players and coaches on both the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons have commented on the newly inaugurated president. Yet in transcripts provided by the NFL to the media covering the week of buildup, the comments had gone missing.
Of the transcripts provided for the interviews with 26 of the Patriots players and coaches and 28 of the Falcons players and coaches, the name “Trump” does not appear in any of them, and the word “president” appears only in reference to team presidents, despite reporters’ having asked about them. The name “Goodell” appears just once.
Notably, Patriots tight end’s Martellus Bennett’s assertion that he would not visit Trump’s White House as a Super Bowl champion was not included in the transcripts, nor was Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu’s respectfully declining to get into the controversial executive order which temporarily banned travel to the U.S. from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
One of the most outspoken players in the league, Bennett didn’t feel like he was being censored by the NFL.
“They didn’t give me a memo on it,” Bennett said Thursday. “Usually, when they don’t want you talking about some [expletive], they give you a memo. But, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Curiously, even innocuous comments, such as Brady’s insistence that he was “not talking politics at all” was not included on the transcripts.
The NFL would have you believe that the lack of comments on Trump (and Goodell) is merely an omission rather than a redaction.
Goodell himself pleaded ignorance when asked directly about the transcripts.
“I am not aware of anything being deleted from transcripts or anything else,” Goodell insisted. “I must tell you, that’s one thing I am not responsible for around here is the transcripts.”
Citing ignorance is a go-to reflex of the embattled commissioner. He notably denied knowing about a Congressional report which was highly critical of his league for its non-cooperation in a USADA probe into reports of players across multiple sports leagues using steroids. If a full-fledged press release and PR action plan is not in place, Goodell’s typical response is to deny knowledge until a plan can be formulated and enacted. Often, that takes place in the form of carefully crafted statements released at times that are most suitable for the league.
But if the league does indeed hope to limit political commentary this week, it’s going to prove fruitless.
On Wednesday, Mark Leibovich wrote a, 1,800-word feature for The New York Times Magazine titled, “The Uncomfortable Love Affair Between Donald Trump and the New England Patriots.” In it, Leibovich included these comments from Trump:
Trump on Brady: “He said: ‘Mr. Trump’ — he calls me Mr. Trump, which he shouldn’t, because we play golf all the time. Anyway, he says: ‘Mr. Trump — Donald,’ he doesn’t even know what the [expletive] to call me. It’s the craziest thing. He’s a friend of mine.”
Trump on Belichick: “Belichick comes over in his Patriots sweatshirt and the hoodie and the whole thing. He hugs me, and he kisses me, and he said: ‘I love you. You’re the greatest.’ He just feels warmly toward me, Belichick does. Isn’t that the craziest thing?”
Trump on Goodell: “The commissioner is a weak guy. When he made the Ray Rice deal, everybody said: You’re stupid. You’re weak. And it was such a weak deal. So now he’s going overboard with their star, Brady. … The commissioner is a dope. He’s a stupid guy.”
Interestingly, Brady’s wife — internationally famous supermodel Gisele Bundchen — said on Instagram last fall that she was not going to vote for Trump, and this week she shared a photo on Instagram promoting diversity and bringing the world together. Given current events in the U.S., it’s not difficult to surmise where the inspiration for a photo like that might come from.
With a potential Patriots visit to Trump’s White House coming in the near future, the intertwining of the NFL and Trump is just beginning.
Likewise, Atlanta winning won’t bring about a hard stop to any involvement. Falcons owner Arthur Blank spoke at length about his concerns regarding some developments from the early days of the Trump presidency.
“That’s what makes America great, is the melting pot of what makes this country great and the abilities and capacities and commitments to all those people that came from around the world to settle here because they saw a dream and a vision,” Blank said in an interview with Newsday’s Bob Glauber.
The situation extends even to the halftime show, as the NFL two weeks ago denied a report that indicated the league would be restricting Lady Gaga from making any political statements in her time in front of millions of viewers around the country and around the globe.
On Thursday in Houston, the performer said she doesn’t plan to grandstand but will represent her beliefs as she always does.
“The only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I have been consistently making throughout my career,” said Lady Gaga, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton. “I believe in a passion for inclusion, I believe in the spirit of equality, and the spirit of this country as one of love, and compassion, and kindness. So, my performance will [include] those philosophies.”
Of course, the NFL knows full well the impact that demonstrations on live TV can have. During the preseason this past August, Colin Kaepernick kick-started a borderline national hysteria for his refusal to stand for the national anthem. Even though Kaepernick was always willing to speak at length about his reasons for doing so, and even though he explicitly stated he meant no disrespect to veterans and active military, the anthem protests became a real problem for the league. Raised fists, kneeldowns and locked arms became common around the league, each one generating headlines.
The league likely wagered that eventually the attention would quiet down, and that proved to be the case.
But with the Trump presidency just two weeks old — and with the president embedding himself with Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots as often as he can — this will be one issue that won’t be going away any time soon.