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President Donald Trump never hesitates to bring up his connections to NFL team owners.
"I know the owners. I know [New England Patriots owner] Bob Kraft. I know so many of the owners," Trump told reporters Friday as he answered a question about whether teams would sign activist and free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, according to The Washington Post.
As wealthy business people, sports franchise owners often rub elbows with presidents and members of Congress. After decades as a developer and multiple attempts to buy an NFL team himself, Trump entered the White House in 2017 with particularly close relationships within America's most lucrative sports league.
A Friday fundraiser for Trump in the wealthy summer haven of the Hamptons on Long Island put a microscope on the president's ties to NFL team bosses. The event's host, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, faced swift backlash for his association with a president whose immigration crackdown and comments about lawmakers of color have sparked fresh charges of racism in recent weeks.
Trump's financial ties to NFL owners stretch well beyond Ross. At least nine owners or the companies they control donated to Trump's inaugural committee. Several of them have also given money to either Trump's campaign or its joint fundraising arm with the Republican Party during the 2016, 2018 and 2020 election cycles, according to Federal Election Commission records. Donors include:
The owners and their firms put about $7.7 million toward the president's 2017 inauguration. They have piled at least another $1.1 million into Trump's election efforts.
Trump most often touts his friendship with Kraft, owner of the Patriots and CEO of Kraft Group. While his company donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, other NFL owners have spent considerably more to support the president.
Houston Texans owner Robert McNair topped all owners by giving more than $1.5 million to Trump committees from 2016 to 2018. McNair died in November 2018.
Meanwhile, Janice McNair, Robert's wife and current owner of the Texans, has usually distanced herself from politics. Records show she has contributed minimally to presidential candidates.
Her last donation to any committees related to Trump came in 2018, when she wrote a $5,000 check to the Great America Committee, a political action committee created by Vice President Mike Pence in support of Trump's reelection bid. She does not intend to host any fundraisers or conduct any political fundraising, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets owner and Trump's ambassador to the United Kingdom, donated just under $1.5 million to the inaugural and campaign committees in the same period. He most recently gave $360,000 to Trump Victory, the joint Trump and GOP fundraising committee, in May.
Johnson will not be as involved with Trump's fundraising apparatus as he was in 2016 due to his ambassador post, according to people familiar with the matter. He does not plan to reach out to his donor network and open it up to Trump in 2020. He's likely to make more contributions to Trump's reelection effort, people with direct knowledge of his activities said.
A personal spokesman for Johnson declined to comment.
Despite his friendship with some of the league's owners, Trump has a long and at times contentious relationship with the NFL. When he bought the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling USFL in 1983, Trump saw the purchase as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal of owning an NFL team.
He tried to buy the Baltimore Colts in 1981. During his time as a USFL owner, he led an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. While Trump's league won the lawsuit, it only got $1 in damages and the league eventually folded.
As recently as 2014, Trump lost a bidding war for the Buffalo Bills.
In recent years, Trump has used his fight with the NFL to try to excite his political base. He criticized Kaepernick and other players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the U.S. In September 2017, he urged owners to "fire" the "son of a bitch" who takes a knee while the anthem plays.
Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills is one of the players who joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem. Stills recently criticized Ross, his team's owner, for raising money for Trump while running RISE, a nonprofit that says it "educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations."
Some consumers also pledged to boycott fitness companies Equinox and SoulCycle — subsidiaries of The Related Cos., a real estate firm that Ross chairs.
Ross responded by saying he had known Trump for 40 years, and that "while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions."