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NFL Insider Huddles with RealClearLife on Brady, Trump, and What Could Kill Football

Author Mark Leibovich tackles the league from its blind side in new book, “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.”

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During the course of reporting his latest book, Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous TimesMark Leibovich drank sun-enriched bottled water with Tom Brady, slugged Johnnie Walker Blue with Jerry Jones, and ate organic eggs laid by chickens raised by the caretaker of the Boston-area estate of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. 

However, the New York Times Magazine’s correspondent did not have a slice of pizza with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell because, among other reasons, the commish has a negative association with cheese after biting into a slice of American that was still wrapped in plastic when he was a kid.

Considering the league’s sponsorship deal with Pizza Hut and that anyone who doesn’t like pizza is immediately untrustworthy in the eyes of your average American (and should be), it’s no surprise Goodell doesn’t make his food preferences public.

The front cover of Mark Leibovich’s “The Big Game” which goes behind the scenes of the NFL.

But, that’s just an example of the kind of tasty little inside-the-NFL nugget you’ll find in a book that is full of them. In fact, Big Game even has a chapter called “Nuggets” which explores the world professional NFL nugget-gatherers like Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport inhabit on a daily basis.

Reported over the course of four years, Big Game touches on everything from Colin Kaepernick and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to how much money the NFL wants to make by 2027 ($25 billion) and how a “MAGA” hat actually wound up in Brady’s locker (Kraft put it there). 

The stories in the book are great, but they don’t end there and are continuing to play out with each passing day now that the NFL is back in season. And, even though he’s no longer reporting on them, Leibovich – a lifelong Patriots fan – is still following ’em.

Like President Trump’s nearly weekly attacks on the league.

“NFL owners are extremely worried about that. It’s the classic short-term concern,” Leibovich told RealClearLife. “As someone who covers politics, it’s analogous to the conversations you’ll sometimes have with Republican politicians on the Hill who are sort of obsessed with staying on the right side of Trump and his tweets and, by extension, his base. Donald Trump can do short-term damage to the league as he’s proven. In politics, short-term harm can cost you your job which isn’t the issue here, but it’s certainly a preoccupation of the NFL.”

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.

Had NFL owners allowed Trump to buy the Buffalo Bills and join “the Membership” in 2014 as he wanted, this situation – and countless others – would be different. But there is no regret among owners about the decision they made.

“None of them wanted to do business with this guy,” Leibovich told RCL. “They didn’t want to let him into their club. That’s been true for four decades. He’s been trying to get into the league for a long, long time. Most of these guys never took him seriously. They thought he was a clown. And then he got elected president so now they have to deal with him. He kind of got the last laugh and is loving every second of being able to manipulate events and mess with these guys who didn’t want him in their club.”

One team Trump hasn’t messed with and instead heaped praise on is the Patriots. But “they may wish that never happened,” according to Leibovich.

“Donald Trump has a way of name-dropping pretty aggressively, especially when he can associate himself with successful people,” Leibovich said. “What’s the point of having big, shiny friends if you can’t show them off? I think Tom would just as soon not be publicly linked to Trump largely because he has a lot of Trump-disliking friends and his Bay Area-family is pretty liberal. I think his wife doesn’t have much use for the president and Tom doesn’t think that much about politics one way of the other. Belichick I don’t think cares. And Robert Kraft – they’re in the billionaires’ club together. I think he values the most that he can be seen as a confidant of the president. But most of them would probably rather it happened in private.”

So, given the tenuous nature of each, will the Trump White House or the partnership of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick in New England last longer?

“The Trump presidency, barring some unforeseen event, either as 2.5 years left of 6.5 years left … I’m gonna say that Brady and Belichick will outlast the Trump presidency,” Leibovich said. “I have nothing to go on but think of the variables there. Trump could be impeached. If he doesn’t get re-elected, will Brady and Belichick be together in two years? There’s a pretty good shot of that. If he stays in office longer, I’ll probably be wrong but you never know. My prediction is there’s a 60 percent chance Belichick and Brady outlast Trump in the White House.”

And for those of you hoping to see Brady on the field at age 45, there’s some good news: Leibovich thinks he’ll make it.

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Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots stands with Tom Brady #12. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“I think he really wants to and sees it as a serious goal,” he said. “He’s very goal-oriented and focused and has been very lucky health-wise. He takes great care of himself and plays a position that is very well-protected. They legislate very aggressively against contact with quarterbacks. It’s not like there are any linebackers who think they are going to play til 45 and if they do, they’re crazy.”

But if Brady does reach that milestone, he won’t necessarily be wearing a Patriots uniform when he does.

“I would say that Tom will take it until 45, but I’m not convinced it will be in New England,” Leibovich said. “He’s a little restless and I think he’s sick of his coach like you would be after 20 years with anyone. Very driven, focused and ego-centric people get sick of each other. Even the best dynasties in sports have rarely lasted 18 years. Vince Lombardi is a legend in the modern NFL and he lasted eight years in Green Bay. He coached the Washington Redskins at the end of his career. There’s always a curiosity in people who achieve great things in one situation about whether it’s something they could do on their own.”

Another player who won’t be wearing a Patriots jersey – or likely any other – in the NFL is Colin Kaepernick.

“I don’t think anyone in the league wants to be in a position where it looks like they are being shamed into hiring this guy,” Leibovich said. “Also, the longer he’s out of the league, the older he gets and the more likely it becomes he doesn’t come back. You lose a lot of muscle memory and NFL careers are pretty short. He’s already lost a good amount of what would be the normal lifespan of his career. At the same time, I think his legacy is assured. He means what he says and believes in what he’s doing and his collusion lawsuit against the league keeps getting more interesting. Still, I would guess it’s unlikely he’ll be playing football again in the NFL.”

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Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest on the sideline. (Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Which isn’t to say that people are going to stop talking about it.

“It’s not an attractive story for the league. The guy doesn’t have a job and it gets squarely into politics.”  Leibovich said. “People act on politics. It gets squarely into inequality issues. You have a league that’s 75 percent African-American and is 100 percent white-owned and operated basically. It does call attention to a very uncomfortable truth within the league. It’s a white-owned sport with a white, mainly conservative, fan base and a mainly black workforce. That’s not a sexy story for the league.”

Still, despite Trump, Kaepernick and all the rest of the NFL’s problems, it likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It is, after all, the Big Game.

“Problems are all relative. They are still the 800-pound gorilla in American entertainment,” Leibovich said. “This is a company that is printing money and has a monopoly. Concussions could be an issue though. They come up a lot. They aren’t something that is going to kill the golden goose next week or next year, but there is a long-term issue just because fewer people are playing football. There is so much research now that shows what playing football does to the body. But people want to let themselves forget as much as they can that this other stuff is involved. Football still has a real hold on the American imagination in ways that have proven durable. I don’t think the game is going to die anytime soon.”

Even if the partnership of Brady and Belichick, or the Trump White House, does.

For a copy of Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times or to get Leibovich’s work delivered straight to your inbox, head over to Penguin’s website