Once upon a time, the New England Patriots were lovable underdogs. No, really. Think back to the 2001 season. They had never won a championship. They were led by a backup quarterback taken with the 199th pick in the National Football League draft. They did cheesy-sports-movie things like being introduced as a team, rather than as individuals, by the Super Bowl’s public-address announcer.
The Patriots’ place in American culture has changed dramatically since they beat a seemingly unbeatable opponent, the St. Louis Rams, known as “The Greatest Show on Turf” at the time. That’s what happens when the backup quarterback goes on to win a ring for every finger on this throwing hand and put another ring on the hand of the world’s most famous supermodel, while the franchise draws league penalties in not one, but two cheating scandals worthy of their own “-gate” nicknames.
The Patriots inspire envy and suspicion.
As a Boston sports fan previously accustomed to losing, I've found it strange to watch the public image of one of my teams become something like that of the New York Yankees. But now something even stranger has happened. The Patriots, from a deep-blue state that Hillary Clinton won by 27 points in 2016, have become an avatar for President Trump — adopted by the likes of Breitbart News and the Daily Caller, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and even white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Part of the reason is obvious. Trump describes Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft as “total winners,” and all three football men have publicly expressed support for Trump.
But President Barack Obama waxed about his love of the Chicago White Sox and the club invited him (and his dad jeans) to throw out the first pitch at a game, yet the White Sox did not come to symbolize Obama.
Trump and the Patriots go beyond mutual admiration. To some, the Patriots are the sports world’s version of Trump — attacked by the establishment, persecuted by a major TV network and still winning.
The comparisons intensified after last year's Super Bowl, which the Patriots won despite trailing 28-3 in the second half.
“Pundits and predictors were forced to relive election night on Sunday evening, as Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots completed an improbable comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons,” read the lead sentence of Breitbart's game report.
Here's a sampling of Patriots-related Breitbart headlines since then:
- So much winning: Patriots owner gives President Trump a Super Bowl ring
- ESPN's Kellerman: Gronkowski popping into WH press briefing normalizes Sean Spicer — Patriots should've boycotted trip
- Patriots save Sunday Night Football from collapse, still down huge from 2016
- Patriots linebacker faces pushback for posting photo of 'assault weapon' on Instagram
- Fake news! Patriots Twitter account busts NYT for out of context pics showing Patriots Obama trip better attended than Trump
- Politico smears New England Patriots as racist, 'alt-right' team
With just a little imagination, covering the Patriots allows Breitbart to hit many of the same themes as it does when covering Trump, particularly that the mainstream media is full of haters and snowflakes straining to find thin links to unsavory people and ideologies.
Belichick displays such contempt for the media during news conferences that he makes White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her predecessor, Spicer (a Pats fan), seem friendly and forthcoming by comparison.
The Patriots, like Trump, disdain the media, in general. The team also, like Trump, has one special nemesis.
“Is failing ESPN out to destroy the most dominant team in sports?” read a recent Daily Caller headline.
ESPN is to the Patriots what CNN is to Trump. The Pats might not use the term “fake news,” but that’s basically what they meant when they called a Jan. 5 ESPN report about palace intrigue involving Brady, Belichick and Kraft “unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate.”
The Daily Caller predicted that “Belichick, Brady and Kraft will likely pay no mind to ESPN’s big feature story because, if it wasn’t already clear, ‘the worldwide leader in sports’ hates success. Just take a look at their ratings. Sad!”
Meanwhile, Jones's Infowars website has promoted the dubious theory that “Trump haters now want to assassinate Tom Brady.” Infowars, like Breitbart, also dreams of Brady unseating Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Jones seemed drawn to the Patriots even before Trump launched his political career. The Deflategate episode, which began in January 2015, “shows how the public loves a conspiracy theory that doesn't affect anything real,” Jones told viewers on his YouTube channel. Deflategate mania, Jones suggested, was a way of distracting the public from more nefarious conspiracies.
“They're not taking my guns,” Jones said of the Pats. “They're not putting fluoride in my water.”
Blue-state Patriots fans might not be regular consumers of Infowars, Breitbart or the Daily Caller, but they do have a politically incorrect id on the Internet. It’s called Barstool Sports and is run by a guy who goes by “El Presidente.” His real name is Dave Portnoy, and he was an early endorser of Trump, writing this in August 2015: “I am voting for Donald Trump. I don’t care if he’s a joke. I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist. I don’t care about any of it.”
No, I did not invent a character to fit perfectly into this story. Portnoy is real, and he did not respond to an interview request.