The Pigskin is Now Political: How Donald Trump Undercut The Super Bowl and the NFL

In 1966, John Lennon famously said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was a powerful and politically charged statement about the cult of personality and popular culture overtaking an institution, and in some ways, Lennon wasn't wrong. 

Some have compared the NFL to a religion in the U.S., and I wouldn't go that far, but the surge in popularity the league has seen since the 90s is unprecedented in sports. Nearly every franchise in the NFL is now valued over a billion dollars. Fantasy football used to be something dorky kids like me and my high school friends used to play (hint: it wasn't cool then, probably still isn't cool now). Now you'd be hard pressed not to find everyone and their mother, brother, friend's boyfriend, and mechanic's cousin in a league. The billion dollar contracts the NFL holds with Fox, CBS, and ABC/ESPN have cemented it as not only America's last reliable source of advertising real estate, but the dying breath of live TV as a necessity. 

The league has endured multiple domestic violence scandals and cover-ups, controversies surrounding concussions, player bounties, and players kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner. And through it all, it seemed nothing could topple the league. That was of course until Donald Trump. 

I have been watching the NFL since I was 12 years old, and in the nearly 2 decades of Super Bowls I can never remember one with less fanfare than today's game. There's only one logical reason. Donald Trump and the coverage surrounding him have swallowed everything. 

Numerous NFL reporters like Bill Barnwell, Rick Reilly, Michael Silver and Jason LaCanfora are now tweeting more about politics than they are about the NFL. Players have taken this moment to embrace activism in a league that is practically allergic to "distractions." The New England Patriots - who were once considered the heroic embodiment of American courage in the 2002, post-9/11 Super Bowl - are now akin to the NFL's "axis of evil." The Patriots' popularity was plummeting anyway, first for the smugness, second for the cheating, third for the winning. But now with Patriot brass like QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichik, and owner Robert Kraft coming forward as Trump supporters, the nail has been hammered into the coffin of the Patriots' popularity. 

This evening, America's most important game will take place. It's a moment where everyone stops to watch, a unique and unifying event for American sports, commercialism, and to a lesser extent, pride. Football is our sport. Nobody else in the world plays it like us. Nobody else in the world loves it like us. Yet, the "big game" is not to be overshadowed by Trump's big ego. Halftime shows usually involve A-list performers and the most expensive commercials. For most it's the only part of the spectacle worth caring about, and never, almost ever, is a political figure even thought of in association with the Super Bowl. Donald Trump, however, is not to be outdone by the NFL. His pre-taped interview with Bill O'Reilly will air before the game, and it's likely to make more headlines tomorrow than even the most outrageously exciting finish the game could have. When the eccentricity of Lady Gaga is certain to take second fiddle to Trump's thoughts on Iran during a Superbowl, you know we've reached an undeniable cultural shift. 

Politics used to stay out of sports. Sports used to be the oasis for the politically disinclined. Not anymore. Those worlds are clashing. When constitutional crisis is in the daily vernacular, when tweets have the possibility to trigger trade wars (and real wars), when our allies no longer know where we stand, and when the judicial branch and a free press are under siege from the West Wing, men tackling each other for sport suddenly seems even more trivial than we ever could have imagined. 

Donald Trump may not be bigger than Jesus, (or the Beatles), but he's bigger than the NFL and he wants to make sure you know it.