The Philadelphia Eagles beat President Donald Trump. They slipped the punch, and he wound up swinging so hard at the air that he fell on his face. It’s a useful lesson, a timeless one even.
When you’re up against a crotch-kicker and an eye-gouger, what do you do? NFL owners confronted that question and decided the best strategy was to try to placate, and they got leg-whipped for it. It was entirely their own fault, for deciding that a president who called their players “sons of bitches” somehow would play by their rules. The Eagles were smarter. They understood that an eye-gouger counts on an adversary who will come in close.
A crotch-kicker needs an opponent. Without one, what is he? Without a race to bait, without someone to accuse, without a target to lash out at, what can he do? When there is no one to scapegoat or to scream spittle at, then what? He has to stand there and try to look and be presidential. That’s what the Eagles understood when they refused to go to the White House and shake his hand. And that’s what the camera so pointedly revealed Tuesday at the “patriotic” ceremony Trump devised to cover for their absence: the pointless pugnacity of the up-tilted chin, the uncertainty about what to do or even where to stand, the fumbling for words of a song.
He had punched himself out and was flopping on the mat.
The mistake NFL owners made was to believe Trump was actually on their team. They thought the billionaires club was tighter than an NFL club, that they had more in common with Trump than the guys on their own roster. They were more comfortable negotiating with Trump on the phone than with their own players in the room, because they figured he would follow the rich-guy code of not shooting holes in their boat. What they didn’t understand is that they were never anything but his soft-bellied targets.
Trump doesn’t observe niceties. So, he drew them in close, and they shook his hand, while he gave them another cheap shot with his fist. The anthem controversy escalated from “son of bitches” to Trump’s suggestion that any player who stays in the locker room for the anthem should be deported. A crotch-kicker counts on his ability to unnerve, to expose helplessness or weakness or panic in his opponent with pure aggression. He knows it makes them look like stupid victims. And nobody cheers a stupid victim.
One of the things we tend to misunderstand about people who fight dirty is that their style is not just calculated to stretch the rules on what they can do. It’s calculated to redefine what we will accept. The strategy is to foul so much that the refs can’t call them all. Sucker the opponent and numb the officials, and from then on, it’s a not a game; it’s a brawl, and they’re the better brawlers. You’ve seen it a million times. The Detroit Pistons with Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer won NBA championships with it.
The only problem with that strategy: You need an opponent you can grab. Steph Curry has his Golden State Warriors on the brink of another NBA championship because he is unfindable; he is the hardest player to grab in the history of the league. He never, ever stands still. Then there is LeBron, who is too big to hold on to. Neither will be going to this White House.
The Eagles were unfindable. They stepped aside, and afterward, they struck just the right tone, calmly resistant and non-responsive. And that left Trump windmilling at nothing, and he exposed himself. Without culture wars and twitter wars and trade wars, what’s left? Governance? Reading briefs? How tedious.
In the vacuum left by the Eagles, came the recognition of that no one in the Oval Office did any homework, or they’d have known not a single member of the Eagles knelt during the anthem last season, and that they are one of the most devout Evangelical teams in the league, as well as the most charitable. Their roster is full of poster boys for good citizenship. Fletcher Cox raises money for the local police department. Chris Long and Lane Johnson are tireless fundraisers for Philly schools; Rodney McLeod works for food banks. Nelson Agholor donates backpacks to students; Torrey Smith funds after-school programs for low-income elementary school kids. It’s tedious, community charity work. But they do it.
Muhammad Ali invented rope-a-dope for George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, because he knew something crucial about the rope. Foreman wasn’t a dirty fighter, but he was a brutal one, and early in the fight, Ali knew there was no way he could stand close and survive Foreman’s flurries. Driven to the corners, he played the “dope” against the rope, because he knew when you’re getting hit against the rope, the rope takes some of the strain. Ali let Foreman punch himself out, while the rope helped him absorb the blows. After the third-round bell rang, Ali yelled, “I made it.” That’s when Foreman knew he was in a fight he might not win.
But most people aren’t Steph or LeBron or Ali. So, when confronted with someone who practices startling, uncalled-for aggression, they don’t know what to do. One of the things the Trump-NFL anthem controversy has illuminated is the extent to which American life operates on an honor code. We count on mutual adherence to certain civilities and limits. The Pistons practiced “Jordan Rules,” but we counted on them not to actually put Michael Jordan in a sling or a cast. We trust that rivals won’t become “foes,” that opponents won’t become actual enemies. Everything, literally, depends on that.
When someone comes at you harder than they should, the critical thing is not to break the rules yourself, because you will break the game. It’s among the most immortal and true principles of any contest: Overreacting will cost only yourself, and all will be lost. True excellence is not just about the vicious deployment of force, but the control and parrying of it without losing yourself, your honor, your conception of what’s most important and who you want to be in this contest, and this world. Don’t let someone else’s breaking of the rules break you down. Don’t let them turn something ugly that shouldn’t be, and that you don’t want to be.
Step out of the way. And wait. The rope will take the strain.