Mike Brown once shared a room with Donald Trump.
Now the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals shares a dilemma with him.
Since 2016, the National Football League has struggled to come up with a way of addressing players who have chosen to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem before the start of games as a way to protest racial justice in America.
The actions have drawn positive and negative responses, none more polarizing than that of President Trump.
Tuesday, at the Bengals annual preseason media luncheon, Brown was drawn into that discussion, although he said he wanted to do nothing to “stir the pot” while the league and the players’ union were working to come to a solution that was “acceptable not just to the clubs and the players, but more so the public … And let’s not forget the president!”
Brown said Trump’s continued tweets attacking NFL players for kneeling during the anthem has prolonged the issue, which he calls one of the NFL’s biggest distractions.
The situation began in 2016 when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to protest social inequality for people of color. In speeches and tweets Trump disparaged players’ instead for their patriotism and suggested they be suspended or be fired and once referred to them as SOBs.
Two months ago the league adopted a policy that fined players if they protested on the field, but gave them the option of staying in the locker room during the anthem.
The issue escalated last week when the Miami Dolphins developed a plan that would subject players to suspension should they violate the policy.
When the players’ union responded, the league changed course, went back to square one and began trying to formulate a solution that all sides could accept.
Trump stepped up his attack and challenged league president Roger Goodell to come down hard on players who protest.
Brown said those tweets are not helping matters.
He also said he’s only been in Trump’s company once:
“When he sued the National Football League years ago, he was sitting there and I happened to be sitting there, too. That’s my only memory of him in person.”
He might not know Trump personally, but he believes he understands what he is doing here.
He said the president’s constant tweets on the issue have “worked against us and stirred the pot…They’ve got people looking at us unfavorably. He has worked that issue, for, I suppose, political reasons…but it is what it is. It’s beyond my paygrade.”
Only one NFL owner, Shad Khan – the American Dream success who is now the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a man who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration – told USA Today that some of the President’s actions far eclipse anything involving the NFL.
“Let’s get real. The attacks on Muslims, the attacks on minorities, the attacks on Jews…I think the NFL doesn’t even come close to that on the level of being offensive …(Trump) is trying to soil a league or a brand that he is jealous of.”
Khan, according to USA Today, is not the only person in the NFL to think Trump’s disdain for the league is rooted in jealousy.
In 1981, he fronted a group that tried to buy the Baltimore Colts for $50 million but the offer was rejected by owner Robert Irsay.
Three years later Trump – then the owner of the New Jersey Generals in the fledgling USFL – met with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Leslie Schupak, the head of the USFL’s marketing and public relations, was at the meeting, too, and recounted the session to author Jeff Pearlman.
He said Trump went into a monologue about why he would be a great NFL owner. Rozelle, who felt tricked by the intent of the meeting, turned icy and allegedly said:
“As long as I or any of my heirs are involved with the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the NFL.”
After that meeting, Trump convinced the rest of the USFL to sue the NFL for running a monopoly. The USFL won the case, but rather than the $1.7 billion in damages it anticipated, it was awarded just $3 and that and the public relations disaster that came with it, basically destroyed the league.
In 1988 Trump did have a chance to buy the New England Patriots for $80 million but pulled out of the deal when he learned he would inherit the previous owner’s debts.
It turned out to be a bad business calculation on his part. According to Forbes, the Pats are worth over $3 billion.
Finally, in 2014, Trump tried to buy the Buffalo Bills for $1 billion, but an NFL source told Bleacher Report that several owners had serious doubts Trump had that kind of money and turned him down.
All this has turned the NFL into an opponent, one Trump dislikes as much as political foe Hillary Clinton.
“You have to give Trump credit,” Khan said. “People are confused on the First Amendment versus patriotism and that if you exercise your First Amendment, you’re not a patriot, which is crazy.”
The issue has divided fans and hurt attendance in some places.
The Bengals had more empty seats than usual at Paul Brown Stadium last season. But first and foremost that has to do with winning.
The Bengals are coming off two losing seasons and haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.
Brown is acutely aware of the situation and it prompted him to do something he seems to wish he hadn’t.
In early April the team brought in talented free agent safety Eric Reid for a look. Reid had maintained a respectful, but unwavering anthem protest last season with the 49ers.
Brown reportedly asked him if he would agree not to kneel this season. Reid would not commit, the Bengals didn’t sign him and today the veteran defensive back remains unsigned, as is Kaepernick.
Soon after a grievance on behalf of Reid was filed against NFL owners, claiming they colluded not to sign him because of his anthem protests.
Brown declined to go into specifics Tuesday and said he was to meet with team lawyers on Wednesday to discuss the case.
“Do I regret stepping into it the way I apparently did?” he said with a shrug and a smile. ”I think you know the answer to that. “
He said he was surprised how quickly it had become an issue: “It was a quick-forming thunderhead. I didn’t expect it.”
For Brown part it was a business decision, not a sign of racial animus as it is with some critics of the league, which is 67 percent black.
Brown has often championed black players, as did his father, the legendary Paul Brown, who, as the Cleveland Browns coach, had black players on his team in the mid-1940s.
Mike Brown lamented the way the protest issue has “distracted” people from the game he has been associated with – and has loved — for most of his 82 years.
“We have lost some of the fizz we have,” he said.
He blamed it on the misconstrued anthem issue and the concussion issue, too.
“These issues generally are not fully understood by the people who criticize,” he said.
Near the end of his session Tuesday, I asked Brown if, being an elder statesman in the league, he would consider reaching out to Trump and “put a bug in his ear.”
The question caught him by surprise, but then he smiled and shook his head:
“I have not been commissioned to bug the president …and I don’t think I have plans to do that.”
Meanwhile, Trump – in 280 characters or less – will continue to bug the NFL every chance he gets.