We live in terrible times. Sport can provide some needed distraction from the darkness, but ultimately, for it to truly matter, sport must embody values beyond escapism and gross commercialism. The teams and players we choose to invest emotional energy into must reflect values that we too feel. At this frightening moment, the ante has been upped on everything.
I have been a fan of the New England Patriots for the last 17 years. I have a love - I don’t use that word lightly - for the team and particularly the two totems of their incredible success this century, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
This Sunday, the Patriots will attempt to win their fifth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era. But the enthralling possibility of this achievement, and the game itself (America’s true national holiday) have been overshadowed by the rising tide of obscenities that have followed on from the inauguration of Donald Trump.
The Trump presidency presents all Americans, and indeed all people, with an opportunity to reappraise their ideals and the strength of their convictions. For Patriots fans, Trump’s election offers an unique opportunity to look one’s self in the mirror and ask how much they really love their team. But because the Patriots are as close as any sporting team can be to the 45th president of the US.
This Super Bowl week, I have been plagued by doubt. I have reached an impasse. My team or my values. The two can no longer co-exist. And so, with some reluctance and heavy-heartedness, I have chosen. I am done supporting the New England Patriots. The two best known figures in their organisation are on Trump’s side. Which implicitly means they are on the side of white nationalism, fascism 2.0 and the hordes of goons trying to bring the world back to 1933.
The links between the Patriots and Trump are well-documented. Tom Brady positioned a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap in his locker last season. Donald Trump has boasted constantly about the strength of their friendship.
— Tim Young (@TimRunsHisMouth) October 12, 2016
Days before the election, Trump also bragged about how Belichick wrote him a letter, praising him for his campaign.
— COYS ☭ (@MYoung_____) November 14, 2016
Brady has been badgered for months about his friendship with Trump, which seemed based largely in golf, and refused to engage with the media’s inquisition (although his wife has made it clear she has her own politics). This week, when again confronted with a question about everything happening in America, Brady was in peak deflection mode.
"What’s going on in the world?” Brady said. “I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
I accept everyone’s right to their personal politics. I believe Brady is speaking honestly when he talks about his commitment to positivity. I acknowledge that avoiding media distraction is one of the cornerstones of the Patriots’ excellence over the years, and Super Bowl media day is not the place for nuanced political debate. I was not expecting Brady to offer an Ali-style rebuke of America’s new overlord.
But come on. Give us a break, Tom. The world is on a knife-edge. Trying to pretend otherwise is either delusional or tacit support of the new order. Brady has had 15 months to create some sort of wedge between himself and the abhorrent politics of his golfing cronie and he has refused. This is moral cowardice of the highest order and in light of the events of the first two weeks of the Trump presidency, I can no longer support this quarterback or his coach on Super Bowl Sunday.
As Dave Zirin and others have outlined, they have allowed to Trump to use their sporting excellence as props. They have let him trample all over their excellence. They have said nothing.
I was repulsed with Brady and Belichick after the election result but I continued with my support for the team, though less enthusiastically. The lived experience of the Trump presidency has raised the stakes however and as someone not given to political grandstanding, I feel compelled to make a stand here and now. The sacred bond between fan and team has been corrupted by this orange swamp monster.
This decision pains me greatly.
My adult interest in the NFL, and indeed all sport, is linked to Brady and Belichick. I went to college in Boston and in some rebellious pique, stopped following sport altogether. The zealotry of Boston sports fans eventually lured me back and the Patriots’ Super Bowl run in the 2001-2002 season fully rekindled my love for sport. Brady was a nobody then, an unknown carrying a clipboard. Belichick was then considered a failure as a head coach. The Patriots journey to that Super Bowl win in New Orleans in 2002 was wild, heady and frankly unbelievable.
Incredibly, 15 years later, the Patriots are still lead by those two men. This consistent excellence makes the Patriots unique in world sport. This Super Bowl offers Patriots fan perhaps (but perhaps not) a final chance to savour one of the most bountiful relationships in all sport. A fifth Super Bowl ring and promotion to the pantheon of the football gods feels inevitable.
But I can’t do it. Every time I see Tom Brady, I picture a tawdry made-in-Vietnam ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on his perfectly-proportioned head. Every time I hear Bill Belichick muttering empty platitudes about the quality of his opponent, I imagine him sitting down with pen and paper over a blank sheet of paper, his heart swelling, as he considers which words of inspiration to send his future commander-in-chief.
Both men have had ample opportunity to distance themselves from their support of Trump, and Trump’s shameless name-dropping. Both have declined, which is to say, they endorse both Trump’s leadership and policies.
It pains me to write this because I have genuine love for this team and their values. Applying moral judgement to the world of sport is a slippery slope, I’ve told myself, and Belichick and Brady are but two men in an organisation of at least 100 people. There are still the likes of Julian Edelman, one of the bravest men in the NFL. Then there are also Patriots like Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett, who stood up and supported Colin Kaepernick’s protest with clenched fists at the start of the season.
But I can’t shake it. Brady and Belichick are the Patriots. I’ve shrugged off the Patriots past scandals (most of them concocted by jealous losers) but this Trump business is non-negotiable. The spine of leadership in the organisation - from the owner Robert Kraft to the head coach to quarterback - all stand over the tyranny of the Trump regime. I refuse to derive happiness from the splendour of Trump’s chums, even if drawing down that happiness feels like my birthright.
Sports fandom offers an ideal version of friendship. We know almost everything about these men we support. We have genuine emotional connection to them. We spend more time looking at them than most of our real friends and loved ones. And yet we never have to spend any time in their company. Even when they let us down, the disappointment is fleeting because there is a next game, a next season. When they retire, we are left with nothing both warm nostalgia.
But could you actually be friends with a friend of Donald Trump? Could you look that person in the eye and make jokes and banter knowing the conversations he has had with Trump? That his hand has shook the tiny, reptilian Trumphands?
Skeptics might say I’m something of a sporting Benedict Arnold, having turned my back on my hometown NY Giants, the team I supported as a kid, for the Patriots as a young adult. And there’s truth in that. I was not born in New England. Supporting this team is not a condition of my birth.
But sports fandom is arbitrary by nature. We choose our teams. And we can unchoose them.
I no longer feel bonhomie with my Patriots-loving brethren, who crave nothing more than some sort of cathartic moment when stooge commissioner Roger Goodell hands the Vince Lombardi trophy to Tom Brady, the man he suspended for four games in a witch hunt about deflated footballs. My friends - this is pro wrestling stuff. Horrible things are happening outside the sporting arena and we must keep perspective.
I used to think once Brady and Belichick left the Patriots, my interest in the team would wane. But it is now the opposite. Once Brady and Belichick shuffle off, I’ll hopefully be able to support the team again.
Sunday night will certainly be surreal. I won’t be cheering for the Atlanta Falcons. But even though it sickens me, I know I won’t be cheering for the New England Patriots either. I'll have no team. Thanks Trump. And thanks Brady and Belichick.