NEW YORK — Shad Khan thinks he knows the real reason Donald Trump is so obsessed with how the NFL does business.
"This is a very personal issue with him," Khan, the Jacksonville Jaguars owner, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday as NFL owners wrapped up two days of meetings in Lower Manhattan.
Trump, whose bid to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014 failed, slammed one of his favorite punching bags again Wednesday, tweeting that the NFL is demonstrating “total disrespect” for the nation because it is not forcing players to stand for the national anthem.
The league and its owners generally have had little public response to Trump, though New York Giants co-owner John Mara said, facetiously, “I’m shocked,” when asked for a response to the President's tweet. But Khan didn’t hold back.
“He’s been elected President, where maybe a great goal he had in life to own an NFL team is not very likely,” said Khan, who bought the Jags in 2011 for $760 million. “So to make it tougher, or to hurt the league, it’s very calculated.”
He reiterated a description he's used before in characterizing Trump, calling him “a divider, not a uniter.”
Asked if he was aware of Trump insulting the widow of a Green Beret, LaDavid Johnson, during a phone call Tuesday when, according to Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., he told her, “He knew what he was signing up for,” Khan shook his head.
“It’s so bad," said Khan, who had seen the news reports. "It’s below the lowest of the lowest expectations. It doesn’t sound rational. It’s bizarre.”
Khan notes the irony of Trump accusing the NFL for a lack of patriotism and national pride while the President himself once again stands accused of great disrespect toward the family of a fallen soldier.
“Let’s get real," Khan said. “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. Here, it’s about money, or messing with — trying to soil a league or a brand that he’s jealous of.”
Khan, a self-made billionaire who immigrated from Pakistan, contends that Trump’s flap with the NFL pales when compared to social issues, notably including Trump's proposed travel bans that target people from Muslim-majority nations.
“That’s one aspect that you can imagine — someone is getting a visa that will change their life is from a Muslim-majority country — and, now, boom, that dream to change lives, they get locked out,” Khan said. “That’s a hell of a lot more significant than fighting some sponsors or people who want their money back because they’ve been riled up.”
Interestingly, Khan was one of seven NFL owners (also: Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Stan Kroenke, Robert McNair, Dan Snyder and Woody Johnson) who donated significantly to Trump, providing $1 million to his inauguration fund.
Regret that now?
“I have no regrets in life,” said Khan, who founded a leading manufacturer of auto parts, and was intrigued by some of Trump's proposed economic policies.
“This ugly, toxic side sours the whole experience,” Khan said.
It’s too bad every owner isn’t as candid as Khan. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell undoubtedly expressed the sentiment of many while contending the league wants to “stay out of politics.”
Unfortunately, Trump, who profanely criticized protesting players during a rally last month and urged NFL teams to fire or suspend them, keeps the political link in play.
One high-ranking league official, while mulling Trump, sounded like Los Angeles Chargers tackle Russell Okung, who recently told USA TODAY Sports that he likens Trump's outbursts to the so-called “Southern Strategy,” using the NFL to draw attention from more important matters that are unfavorable to Trump.
Still, several owners have deeper ties to Trump than Khan, raising questions about their apparent willingness to overlook his approach to social issues, including some — such as police brutality and social inequality — that can be directly linked to player protests.
Kraft, the New England Patriots owner, refused to comment on Trump when approached by USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday, contending it wasn’t the proper setting. Strange, considering that Kraft presented Trump with a Super Bowl LI ring this year.
Last week, Trump declared during a Pennsylvania rally that Kraft urged him to gear tax cuts for the middle class rather than wealthy Americans.
Kraft's relationship with the President goes back years, and he credits Trump for helping him cope with the death of his wife, Myra, in 2011. He may have talked taxes with Trump, but I wonder if Kraft has urged him to show more humanitarian concern for Hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico or more contempt for white supremacist rallies.
Jones, meanwhile, told USA TODAY Sports that he recently talked to Trump, who has praised the Dallas Cowboys owner for his controversial declaration that he won’t play any player who doesn’t stand for the anthem. Jones considers himself a Trump friend but refused to provide details except to say that he doesn’t agree with all of Trump’s positions. (You’d hope not.)
Still, with Jones pushing the Trump doctrine on protesting players — rejected, incidentally, by other owners — it’s a bad look.
Taking on Trump publicly has its political risks. But at least one owner, Khan, is willing to address any misperceptions.