The Kiwi NFL pioneer now manning the US defensive line
Ben Stanley meets Riki Ellison, the Ngāi Tahu NFL star turned missile defence lobbyist in Trump's America
When celebrated American author Don DeLillo was writing his acclaimed Cold War novel End Zone, he surely wouldn’t have considered anyone quite like Riki Ellison.
Published in 1972, End Zone is a metaphoric investigation into the imagined junction point between American football and nuclear warfare; a deep dive into that classic masculine delusion of sport as war, or vice versa.
From San Francisco 49ers linebacker protecting legendary quarterback Joe Montana to outspoken Washington DC missile defence lobbyist, Ellison – the first Kiwi to play in the NFL – exists as almost a flesh-made character taken straight from DeLillo’s pages.
The two worlds that Ellison, who was born in Christchurch but left New Zealand at age 8, holds roots in have produced a couple of the biggest running news threads in 2017.
Anthem protests by NFL players attempting to highlight racial injustice have created a wide social wedge in American life, made worse by divisive tweets and statements by US President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, the combination of increasingly regular intercontinental missile tests by North Korea and Trump’s Twitter goading of leader Kim Jung Un have seen the chance of war between the US and the rogue nation increase greatly.
Suffice to say, conversation with Ellison, who won three Super Bowl rings before he retired from the NFL in 1992, is completely different to any other Kiwi ex-athlete you’re going to meet.
“That test was, I think, the eighth test they’ve done against the international community,” Ellison told Newsroom in a recent phone interview, referring to a North Korean test of a hydrogen bomb in September.
“The world is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons – and they’re breaking that. That’s the problem we have. We have a nuclear rogue nation.
“The issue today is this president is not paying off the Korean leader like the previous leaders like Bill Clinton, George W Bush and [Barack] Obama. They’ve all subdued to the North Korean pressure. This is why the escalation is where it is at.”
A strong case could be made that, outside of former Xero chair Chris Liddell – a key business advisor in Trump’s White House and Tim Groser, New Zealand’s Ambassador to the US – Ellison, who speaks in a broad, commanding American accent, is one of the best connected Kiwis in DC.
"I’m going to stay with the missile defence position of the President – that’s where I stand.”
- Riki Ellison supports Donald Trump's stance on North Korea
Partially inspired by ex-President Ronald Reagan’s planned ‘Star Wars’ space missile scheme of the 1980s, Ellison in 2002 founded the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) – a non-profit partially funded by US defence contractors – and has regularly rubbed shoulders with Washington’s national security establishment since.
These days, the NFL pioneer spends his time on Capitol Hill attempting to improve missile defence budgets, visiting US military bases around the world and watching tests of new rockets.
Former Boeing executive Pat Shanahan, one of Ellison’s closest friends, was named the Deputy Secretary of Defense in July, while in October, Trump picked MDAA advisory board member John Rood as the new Undersecretary of Defense for Policy at the Department of Defense.
Despite a tough nomination process through the Senate last month, the ex-Lockheed Martin exec looks set to fill the Pentagon’s new No. 3 job by the end of the year.
Ellison briefed both the Clinton and Trump national security teams on missile defence during the election campaign last year and had labelled Trump “naïve” on the subject of nuclear weapons before his upset victory last November.
North Korea test-fired a new missile last week and fired rockets over Japan earlier this year. Some experts now believe they have the capacity to launch a nuclear weapon to the US.
Yet despite Trump’s unpredictable behaviour, Ellison says he has been impressed by the former property mogul’s approach to the North Korean problem.
“I know there’s a lot of rhetoric going back and forth, but our strategic patience [and] strategic movements [are good],” the 57-year-old says.
“We exhausted the United Nations, we exhausted the sanctions. We’re doing everything we can leading up to maybe where we need to go. We are moving in a direction of trying to get this thing resolved peacefully.
“I think I’ve seen that over the last few months, on this position. I’m going to stay with the missile defence position of the President – that’s where I stand.”
War can certainly be avoided, Ellison says, but China has to play a big role. How about Trump’s Twitter account?
“Most of us have become numb to it because it’s so out there,” he says. “It’s reactionary and causes a lot of debate within the country. But I don’t think you’re going to be able to change it. That’s the way it is.”
Outside North Korea, Ellison highlights Iran and the continued Chinese build-up in the South China Sea as geo-political hotspots to watch.
“[Iran has] worked very closely with North Korea in the past, share rocketry and rocket engineers,” he says. “That could accelerate very quickly if the nuclear position continues to be enabled by North Korea.
“China’s aggressiveness to change the status quo in the Pacific, and put pressure on the United States, Australia and those countries in the Pacific to go back to a thousand years ago where they define their sphere of influence, which I think goes all the way to Hawaii.
“That’s where they are going and they are building capabilities to counter and over-match the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea – and, as you’ve seen, take some of those islands. That’s another reason North Korea is valuable to them – because it has taken the US’s eye off of them – and focus on North Korea – rather than that territorial expansion.”
Ellison’s son Rhett followed his father’s footsteps into the NFL. The California-born tight end, who briefly attended high school at Christchurch’s St Andrew’s College, was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, before signing a four-year US$18 million contract with the New York Giants this March.
The elder Ellison is not a supporter of the widely criticised, and supported, NFL players who have taken the knee during the US national anthem this season.
The former NFL star – who, as a 21-year-old, says he attended the infamous halted Waikato rugby match during the 1981 Springbok tour – respects the right to draw attention to a social ill, but draws a line at “disrespecting” the flag.
“It is a disrespect for the majority of the population who have either served for the flag, respect the flag or died for the flag,” he says.
“As a player, you’re living a dream that no one else in the country – no one else in the world – could give you that opportunity to make $18 million, $20 million. My son doesn’t kneel. I would never kneel. I respect other people, other cultures – and the flag of the United States of America.”
Ellison, whose great uncle Thomas is credited as designing the first ‘All Black’ jumper in the early 1900s, asked how Kiwis would react if Māori rugby players protested a social issue in New Zealand – or an outstanding grievance with the United Kingdom – in a similar fashion to the NFL knees.
“Are the Māori All Blacks going to kneel when they play God Save the Queen?” Ellison, who is affiliated with Ngāi Tahu, says.
“Would they do that? Would your players do that? Would they do it in New Zealand when they play the national anthem or another nation’s national anthem? What would the population believe?
“Certainly, the Māori have been suppressed. Most indigenous people have been suppressed. [But] it’s a matter of respect for any flag in any country. People have died for their flag, so the flag means [more] to people than what is being put in play here.”