2017-10-29 13:29:02
The Battle-Scarred West Wing Veteran Scripting the N.F.L.’s Anthem Message

13:29, October 29 211 0

In the late 1990s, when the Clinton White House was under siege amid revelations of the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and efforts by Congress to impeach him, it fell on Joe Lockhart, then the White House spokesman, day after day to defend his boss.

But unlike many of his predecessors, he did not just take his marching orders. In countless meetings with the president and his advisers, Lockhart helped shape the message he would convey, and he aggressively pressed it to reporters.

“He was out there, he was on point, he was wearing his cleats,” said Doug Sosnik, an adviser to the president who worked closely with Lockhart at the time. “He’s a tough guy, willing to say what needs to be said, and he’s not worried about what people are saying about him.”

People have a lot to say about him again.

Last year, Lockhart took his pugnacious style to another embattled institution, the National Football League, where the lifelong Democratic operative has found himself in the conservative confines of a league staggered by the reaction to players’ demonstrating during the playing of the national anthem at games, as well as cases involving domestic violence, concussions, player misconduct and an array of other issues.

It is a curious career moment for a man who cut his teeth on the campaign trail and spent part of his post-White House days working for corporate titans like Oracle and Facebook.

But, as Sosnik and others who know him attest, Lockhart is a “wartime general, not a peacetime general” for institutions facing conflict. That’s not to say the troops are always in agreement.

In interviews with about a dozen league and team executives — all of whom refused to speak on the record — several owners seemed pleased with his approach to addressing the anthem controversy, which was to strive for a way for the N.F.L. to appear patriotic while respectful of its players who were kneeling to raise awareness of racism and police brutality toward African-Americans.

But there has been friction. Some owners were upset with a comment by Lockhart a few days after President Trump criticized the league and its players for kneeling during the anthem. Lockhart told reporters that players talking about police brutality is “what real locker room talk is.”

The statement was viewed as a flagrant jab at the president, who had dismissed as “locker room banter” comments he made about forcing himself on women, heard in a video leaked during the campaign.

In a meeting at N.F.L. headquarters the next day, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder confronted Lockhart to tell him his remarks would inflame an already fiery issue.

Lockhart confirmed the exchange, which was first reported by ESPN, but said his goal was to react quickly and forcefully, not to craft the perfect rejoinder.

In interviews, several owners, team executives and league officials said that Lockhart has helped amplify the league’s message, even if they question whether more could have been done to anticipate problems before they turned into crises. The attacks by the president, though, were so unusual that “you can’t dump this at his feet,” one team executive said of Lockhart.

Lockhart said that he understands why the owners are frustrated, but he said his job is to keep pushing the league’s view, and pushing back at those who oppose it.

“That’s why they allow me to sit up there and promote it and defend the narrative that football is a great game, brings great values and it’s a great business,” he said.

The owners’ criticism, he said, “is just part of the job.”

Given the continuing heated debate inside the league on the issue, there is from time to time speculation whether Lockhart is long for the job. But if there is a movement to oust him, it is a quiet one.

At events like the Super Bowl, Lockhart is often within an arm’s reach of the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, the pair a study in contrasts. Goodell is tall, athletic and prim. Lockhart is slumped, stocky and tousled. He was so used to the casual dress style in Silicon Valley that he reluctantly resumed wearing neckties when he joined the button-down N.F.L.

Unlike his boss, who has worked more than four decades at the league office, Lockhart’s links to football are thinner. Growing up in Rockland County, northwest of New York City, he said he rooted for Joe Namath and the Jets, but colleagues remember him more as a baseball fan, with a picture of the 1986 Mets hanging in his West Wing office. In high school, he played basketball, not football.

On Sundays during the season, if Lockhart is not at a stadium, he typically watches games in his Manhattan apartment with his two young children, whom he had with his second wife, Giovanna Gray, a former aide to Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York. (His first marriage, to the television journalist Laura Logan, ended in divorce.)

His political genes developed early.

Dinnertime conversation growing up was more likely to be about politics and journalism than sports. His parents worked in television, and his father was a longtime producer at NBC News. Every four years, the Lockhart family spent the summer wherever the presidential conventions were being held.

His skills in choppy political waters have been put to the test in the month since Trump lashed out at players who did not stand for the national anthem.

From the start of the crisis in late September, Lockhart used tactics he honed in Washington. He has pushed the league’s case repeatedly by reaching out to reporters with statements and near-daily conference calls. Through his bidding, the league has publicized positive things that the players are doing in their communities, promoted the idea that the players and owners are united (despite evidence on the field to the contrary), and tried to avoid addressing the president’s remarks directly.

Some of the tone and messaging of the league’s statements, which Lockhart helped craft, have also been in line with a Democratic progressive, a point some owners, a group that includes several staunch supporters of the president, have not missed. They seemed to seek a “third way,” a famously Clintonian way of compromise.

The league’s initial, 87-word statement, issued the day after the president first attacked the league, came after Goodell, Lockhart and other league executives called owners to sound them out. Most N.F.L. statements are bland, but this one was notable for its directness as well as for what it left out.

Goodell’s statement did not explicitly defend the players’ right to protest during the anthem, or even mention racism, the core issue that started the sitting and kneeling demonstrations last season, but it included an unusually strong rebuttal to the president.

“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the N.F.L., our great game and all our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” it said.

Many owners, including several who are donors to Democratic causes, soon followed with similar statements of their own. But other owners issued statements lamenting the league getting pulled into political debates.

After weeks of back and forth, and owners flirting with requiring players to stand, fewer players are kneeling during the anthem.

Lockhart has kept his assertive posture. In a talk with reporters, he was asked about the president, who said the N.F.L. should force all players to stand for the anthem. “He’s exercising his freedom to speak, and I’m exercising my freedom not to react,” Lockhart replied dryly.

As the N.F.L. and social media have grown, the league has become a lightning rod for a host of social issues, including bullying and domestic violence, that stretches its capacity to control the narrative.

Lockhart began advising the league as a consultant in 2014, after video surfaced showing the former running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator.

When his predecessor, Paul Hicks, left the N.F.L. at the end of 2015, Lockhart was a logical choice to replace him. Lockhart was interested in returning to New York and, he said, taking on a complex challenge to make the N.F.L. more fleet-footed and assured in responding to controversy. (It is unclear what he is paid, but, according to N.F.L. tax filings, Hicks earned $1.5 million in his last year at the league.)

Lockhart, who worked on political campaigns dating to Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in 1980, has quickly changed the metabolism in the league’s communications office. When The New York Times published an article last year that compared the N.F.L.’s approach to the concussion crisis to that of the tobacco industry, Lockhart issued a long and detailed rebuttal, and said the league would consider taking legal action. (None has been taken.)

Some reporters are not buying what it is being pushed. Jim Trotter, the president of the Pro Football Writers of America, took exception to Lockhart’s assertion that the league has tried to become more transparent. Lockhart’s conference calls were initially not open to all writers, and Goodell and other top executives have not been made available, he said.

“There’s no question they have been more proactive, and that’s part of Joe Lockhart’s approach to it,” Trotter said. “They will respond to things quicker than in the past. Does that mean it’s accurate? No, but it’s their opinion.”

Still, to a certain extent, he is still seen as a political animal, and a few owners, who by and large lean right, have questioned whether a lifelong Democrat like Lockhart (who sold his house in Washington to former President Barack Obama) was the best person to speak on behalf of the league.

Lockhart said his politics had little to do with his job.

“My work is about making sure that people understand what it is we’re doing, why that is and what impact it is having,” he said. “That’s devoid of a political agenda. It doesn’t mean I don’t have political views. But my overriding view when I come to work is, What’s good for the N.F.L.?”