BOSTON — My father and I have a predictable routine when we speak on the phone, a not uncommon one around here in Massachusetts, it’s safe to assume. After cataloging the well-being of various family members, the conversation inevitably turns to the latest on-the-field exploits of one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. I probably don’t need to tell you our opinion of him is generally quite favorable! So talented. So handsome. My mother and I have a similar, albeit inverted routine of our own. There’s one person we never talk about, if only to maintain a fragile semblance of civility: President Trump.
Brady can relate to that right now. If there’s one thing that can reliably be said about the purposefully enigmatic — or boorishly obtuse, depending on your rooting interests — New England Patriots quarterback, set to compete in his record seventh Super Bowl this weekend, it’s that he really, really does not want to talk about Trump.
“If people want to take sides, you know, they can obviously do that,” he said this week. “It’s everyone’s right. They have a right to do that. And I have a right to stay out of it, too.”
But when it comes to Trump, no one can be apolitical. Brady’s nonchalant neutrality is itself a political statement, one that says he’s either too rich to worry about how Trump’s whirlwind of chaos will affect his life, or worse, too indifferent about the rapidly diminishing prospects of those who are not. This isn’t easy to say about someone I’ve idolized as an emblem of determination and athletic heroism for more than 15 years, but here in the reliably blue precincts of New England, Brady is already assuming a strange new role in the eyes of many fans: Tom Brady looks like a loser. Tom Brady looks like a coward.
Would that it were simple enough for the millions of Trump-opposed Patriots fans like myself to simply wash our hands of it all and abandon ship. But it’s no easier to divorce yourself from a team you’ve supported your entire life than it would be to cast out a family member, and believe me, I’ve considered both options. Making matters somewhat more complicated, no one knows exactly where Brady stands, precisely because he’s been so obstinately vague. With other athletes, it’s a much easier decision to cut the cord. We loved star tight end Aaron Hernandez until it turned out he was a murderer. Likewise, many Ravens fans turned on Ray Rice when video of him punching out his wife emerged. With Brady, we’re confronted with a wishy-washy attempt to have it both ways. Were he to come out and say that like Trump, he thinks Mexicans are rapists, or imply that any refugee is likely to be a radical Islamic terrorist, that would be one thing. Instead, he makes mealy-mouthed appeals to friendship.
It didn’t have to be this way. None of us would’ve given much thought to Brady’s politics if he hadn’t introduced the idea himself early in the campaign, when reporters spotted a Make America Great Again hat in his locker. (Who does Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan support? I have no idea.) At the time, Brady tried to brush off the idea that he was endorsing Trump, calling him an old friend and adding “it would be great” if Trump were president. Having observed Brady and interviewed him a couple times, I have no doubt he did not intend it to become much of a story — if there’s anything the Patriots organization disdains more than losing, it’s “distractions.” But as with all things Trump, the story quickly grew larger than anyone would have imagined. All of a sudden, Brady’s conspicuous absence when the team visited then-President Barack Obama in the White House after winning the Super Bowl in 2015 didn’t seem so innocent. And Trump couldn’t seem to go a week without invoking his great friendship with Brady on the campaign trail. Brady, you see, like Trump, is a winner.
Why does anyone care who a football player voted for? I’m old enough to have been disabused of the notion that everyone I admire thinks the same way I do, and yes, the idea that rich, white athletes might lean Republican is not surprising. But this seemed different — particularly on the eve of the election, at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, when Trump once again trotted Brady out. He’d just called and said he voted for Trump, the candidate barked. And then he read a letter of support from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who, I am still daily flabbergasted to consider, apparently writes letters in the same stilted, sixth-grade reading comprehension cadence as our president.
Fine, most of New England was never going to go for Trump. But New Hampshire was in play. For our two biggest celebrities to let Trump use their considerable heft on his own behalf was no different than campaigning for him. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a Trump friend as well, but the support of Belichick and Kraft doesn’t rankle my fellow Patriots fan friends and me the same way. Football coaches are universally authoritarian brutes, and there’s no such thing as a decent billionaire.
Brady, though. Brady hurt. Particularly when contrasted with the outright bravery of Colin Kaepernick, who kick-started a movement this season when he refused to stand for the national anthem, or other megastars such as LeBron James who’ve been outspoken politically, or NBA coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, who’ve strongly criticized Trump’s ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. It’s not so much that Brady apparently values his golf-buddy friendship with Trump enough to ignore the president’s very clear xenophobic worldview — not to mention the fact that he was caught on tape bragging of his ability to get away with sexual assault. It’s that he won’t even own it. Be a Republican if you must, but at least take a stand. I wouldn’t have loved to have seen Brady supporting Mitt Romney, but Trump is different. Say what you will about former Red Sox great Curt Schilling, but at least he signs his name to the unhinged screeds he pukes up on his website.
With so many other pressing issues, it’s irrational to care so much about who Brady supports. But if there’s anything that disables our critical thinking function, it’s sports. (And presidential politics.) No one rationalizes fandom. By its very nature, it defies scrutiny; you either support a team or you don’t. Besides, anyone who lets themselves think too much about professional football — a jingoistic, militarized enterprise that devastates its players physically and mentally and is led by a cabal of voraciously greedy owners hellbent on squeezing every last dollar out of taxpayers that they can for stadiums — wouldn’t remain a fan very long. Willful cognitive dissonance is as long-standing a football tradition as the forward pass.
That hasn’t stopped my friends and me from trying to find new justifications for rooting for the Pats, though. On a fan Facebook group I run, the header image is safety Devin McCourty and tight end Martellus Bennett raising their fists in power during the playing of the national anthem earlier this season. Bennett, in particular, has become a favorite of ours, one of the more interesting, thoughtful and politically engaged Patriots players in memory. He’s said he probably wouldn’t visit the Trump White House were they to win on Sunday. The Patriots roster is loaded with decent, non-publicly-Trump-supporting players. Special-teams captain Matthew Slater is said to be an exemplary human being, as is star cornerback Malcolm Butler. Mercifully, Rob Gronkowski, a harmless oaf, has not yet held forth on the relative merits of school vouchers. We look for hope, or at least an absence of despair, wherever we can find it.
None of my friends has gone so far as to say we’re turning on the team entirely. But there’s no doubt that we feel differently about Brady than we did before. I would still prefer if he won the game on Sunday, but I won’t be quite so heartbroken as usual if he doesn’t. Trump was right about one thing, in the end. There’s going to be a lot of winning going on around here. So much winning, it might make us sick.