In the third quarter of Thursday night’s N.F.L. game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, the Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan laid a brutal, helmet-to-helmet hit on an opposing receiver, Davante Adams, causing Adams’s neck to jerk back and his body to crumple to the ground. It was the kind of hit that, not too many years ago, the announcers might have celebrated, but which, in 2017, they have learned to meet with shock. “That sounded awful,” one said. Adams had to be wheeled off the field on a stretcher. He gave the crowd a shaky thumbs-up sign with his right hand.
If Donald Trump were watching the game, he might have liked what he saw—at least up until the point that the referee threw a flag, penalizing Trevathan and the Bears fifteen yards for unnecessary roughness. Last Friday, in Alabama, during his tirade against N.F.L. players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Trump also complained about the state of football more generally. He believes that the game has become too soft. “Today, if you hit too hard—fifteen yards!” he shouted. “Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, fifteen yards!” He went on, “They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”
These comments were nonsense, and relied on the same kind of racially coded, dehumanizing, us-versus-them rhetoric as the “son of a bitch” remark that got much more media attention. “They want to hit”—he repeated the phrase twice. But what Trump meant was that he wants to see them hit, and for them to otherwise keep their mouths shut. This is a different thing altogether.
This past off-season, the N.F.L. announced that it would impose suspensions on players who committed “catastrophic” tackles, and Trevathan’s hit on Thursday will test the league’s commitment to its new policy. The N.F.L. for years downplayed the dangers of head injuries—only when compared with Trump could it appear to be a vigilant advocate for the safety of its players. But Trump’s comments temporarily displaced football’s internal controversies, and the N.F.L. closed ranks.
Last weekend, players, coaches, owners, and the sports media—parties who often have competing interests—rallied together against the President with remarkable speed. One of the reasons might be that all of these people, who live closely with football every day, understand the stakes of the game, and the physical ability and mental fortitude that it requires of its players. Joe Theismann, the former quarterback, whose career was ended by perhaps the most famous “catastrophic” tackle of all time, told the Times, “If you really watch the hits up close, you would not say the game is getting soft.” Trump ought to know better—he even owned a professional football team for a while and not so long ago tried to buy another. But, as he often does, Trump seems to have mistaken empathy, respect, and safety for weakness. This week, still banging the football drum, he mocked the N.F.L. owners during an interview with Fox News, saying, “I think they’re afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it’s disgraceful.”
Trump’s life story is that of a man in constant flight from the cowardice he perceives in himself and others. You can see it in his odd musing, at a rally, that “I love war, in a certain way,” despite his Vietnam deferments; his obsession on the campaign trail with denigrating other people’s “stamina” and “energy”; and his blustery threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, as if he would be doing so with his own mighty fists. Or consider a story he told Howard Stern, in 2008, which was recently unearthed, of seeing an old man fall off a stage at a charity event for the Marines. The man hit his head, and blood was pouring out on a marble floor in front of Trump. “I couldn’t, you know, he was right in front of me and I turned away,” Trump said. “I didn’t want to touch him.” A group of Marines stepped in to help.