Trump’s dig at the NFL, like the rest of his campaign, blames “soft” progressive culture for bare-knuckled capitalism’s problem

At a rally yesterday in Nevada, Donald Trump used the NFL as an example of how America has become “soft” and “weak” of late. Harkening back to the days of Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor, Trump pined for the return of the tough, “violent” sport he and his old, white crowd know and love.

Here’s the video, via CNN:

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Said Trump:

So I’m watching the game yesterday. What used to be considered a great tackle. A violent, head-on…if that was done by Dick Butkus they’d say he was the greatest player…and it was incredible to watch, right?

Now they tackle — Oh head-on-head collision! 15 yard penalty! — the whole game is all screwed up. You say, “Wow, what a tackle.” — bing, flag.

Football has become soft. Now, I’ll be criticized for that. They’ll say, “Oh, isn’t that terrible.” But football has become soft like our country has become soft…The outcome of games have been changed by what used to be phenomenal, phenomenal stuff.

It’s become weak and you know what? It’s going to affect the NFL. I don’t even watch it as much anymore.

Here’s the thing: Trump is right when he says that the NFL is calling more penalties that are making it harder to play defense. And he’s right to question the league’s stated reason for doing so: a concern for player safety. However, there’s something other than generalized namby-pambiness that explains why referees in the NFL are throwing more flags now than they were in the days of Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor. It’s just a cause that Trump, and the rest of the Republican Party, can’t dare admit: capitalism.

The problem for Trump is that the NFL isn’t calling more penalties because America isn’t Great Again. The league says that it’s established new, harsher penalties regulating helmet-to-helmet hits in order to protect its players, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone soft under pressure from politically correct beta-males who are worried about nonsense like “brain damage” and “shortened life expectancy.” The NFL is calling more penalties in order to secure and increase its profits.

For starters, the league’s stated concern for player safety is, at its core, empty. The league has regulated some monster hits, but many if not most of the collisions in this compilation of the league’s “greatest hits” are still legal today:

Leading with the shoulder? Near the line of scrimmage? Hitting someone other than the quarterback or a wide receiver in the process of making a catch? Playing offense? You can still demolish your brain and the brains of your fellow players with reckless abandon, and the league is more or less okay with that.

That’s because football is, at its core, a supremely violent sport. That’s why its so popular. Compilation videos like the one above are all over YouTube and football video games have a “hit stick” that lets you level your opponent (at the risk of drawing a penalty, of course) because Donald Trump isn’t the only fan who appreciates seeing grown men cripple each other on national television. Hell, the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive secondary nicknamed itself  the “Legion of Boom” — a reference to how dangerous it is for opposing receivers to play against them. No one in or around the league has a problem with any of this; in fact, it’s encouraged.

The NFL can claim to care about player safety by regulating the most egregious entries on our favorite highlight reels, but the players those rules are designed to protect — quarterbacks and wide receivers, for the most part — aren’t the players most at risk for injury. That title goes to the league’s offensive and defensive linemen, who are smashing their heads against each other on every play of the game — so much so that football has quite literally created its own brain disease that disproportionately affects its linemen. The NFL has consistently stood in the way of attempts to even make this fact known, to say nothing of attempts to address the issue.

All this is to say that if the league wanted to protect players, it’d have to keep them from playing the game in the first place. Instead, everything we know about how the league encourages (at times coming close to forcing) players to play hurt, and covers up evidence that it has a player safety problem in the first place, suggests that these rule changes in the name of protecting the league’s employees are little more than PR cosmetics.

However, mollifying the media and the subset of fans who don’t cheer every time a wide receiver is knocked unconscious on national television isn’t the only — or even the biggest — profit motive the NFL has for penalizing big hits. The broader motive is actually much simpler: defense is boring. Fans like high-scoring games, and making it harder to play defense by penalizing hits on quarterbacks and wide receivers lengthens drives and, by extension, makes it easier to score. There are a number of reasons why NFL teams are passing with greater efficiency than ever before. New penalties and tighter enforcement of existing ones, both of which encourage defenders to ease up in their coverage, can’t help but contribute to that trend.

The NFL isn’t alone in tweaking its rules in favor of offenses. In fact, the history of major American sports is marked by the steady progression of rule changes that favor high-scoring games over low-scoring ones. Perhaps most notably, baseball as we know it didn’t actually emerge until team owners realized that fans liked seeing big men hit home runs. That prompted the league to change the composition of the baseball itself in 1911 — adding a cork core to give the ball more of a “trampoline effect” when it came off the bat. Additionally, by 1919 machine-wound (as opposed to hand-wound) baseballs had been introduced into the league. These machine-wound balls were tighter, and therefore flew farther, prompting pitchers to complain that the game was getting too easy for hitters. But owners stuck with the new machine-wound balls for two profit-driven reasons: they were cheaper, and the fans loved them. Around the same time, the league also outlawed certain types of pitches — the spitball, emery ball, shine ball and mud ball — and teams began building stadiums that made it easier for their best sluggers to hit as many home runs as possible (there’s a reason why Yankee Stadium’s right-field fence was placed unusually close to home plate, and that reason was Babe Ruth). Thus, the “live ball” era was born.

In a similar attempt to run up their league’s scores, the National Basketball Association adopted the shot clock for the 1954-1955 season, which led to an overnight increase of nearly 15 points per game. The NBA would later adopt the three-point shot for the 1979-1980 season over objections that it was little more than a marketing gimmick. Following the 2004-2005 player lockout, the National Hockey League introduced a series of rule changes specifically designed to increase fan interest through higher scoring. These included changes to rink dimensions, reducing goalie equipment size and — shocker — harsher enforcement of penalties. The NHL is considering more goal-inducing rule changes this year.

Did all of these rule changes make their respective sports better? On balance, maybe, but that wasn’t their point. They were all motivated, mostly if not completely, by the chase for profits. The NFL’s selective “crackdown” on hard hits is no exception.

But don’t tell that to Donald Trump, who has built his campaign on the substitution of cultural tension for class tension. His core supporters are working class whites who are fed up with rich establishment figures, both Republican and otherwise, who exploit them for votes and dollars. But while the exploitation is real, Trump has consistently and successfully cast weak-kneed progressives and racial minorities as the villains — the takers — with rich guys like him representing the solution instead of the problem. Notice how Trump concluded his shot at the NFL by asserting that not only are its rule changes bad for the game, they’re bad for business — and Trump knows business. Ass-backwards as that may be, blaming “soft” and “weak” progressive cultural values for problems borne of bare-knuckled capitalism is quintessential conservatism. And it’s easy to accept when there’s no forceful counter coming  from the Democratic Party, which is content to write Trump’s voters off as racists — full stop.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Democrats can make inroads with these voters by prioritizing material, economic gains for all ahead of (not instead of) cultural progress. Trump is allowed to violate traditional Republican orthodoxies — supporting universal health care, for instance — because his core voters never held those orthodoxies to begin with. They just want “their country” back. That can mean white picket fences, social license to beat up gay people and women relegated to the kitchen, but it could also mean economic security and a middle-class lifestyle. Trump offers the former; progressives like Bernie Sanders — who bother to point out that, screw you, grotesquely rich guys really are the problem a lot of time — offer the latter.

If you’re wondering why a democratic socialist has more crossover appeal than a Third Way centrist, there’s your answer.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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