The New England Patriots will be taking on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, and it’s safe to say that this is the most disliked Patriots team of the millennium. The general sentiment is billing this as a battle of Good vs. Evil, and the Patriots are in bed with the devil: Donald Trump. Of course, New England is no stranger to hate; it’s been one of the most divisive teams in the NFL since their dynastic run of success began in the early aughts. But this year’s Super Bowl happened to coincide with the most polarizing US presidential election of our lifetimes. That Tom Brady and Bill Belichick both publicly supported Trump before and after his election is appalling enough, but their silence during Super Bowl Media Week about the administration’s recent actions speaks louder than any perfectly executed play-action touchdown ever could. Which leaves me in a tough spot, as I am both a diehard Patriots fan and a Latino trying to figure out where we go from here as a nation.
Tom Brady has been my favorite football player since I was 12 years old, watching him come back against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36. I never thought something could harm that fandom, especially after the ups (4 Super Bowl wins, ridiculous consistency, general handsomeness) and downs (2 heartbreaking Super Bowl losses, missing a season due to injury, Deflategate) of following him for a decade. As it turns out, all it took was one small red hat.
When Brady prominently displayed Trump’s Make America Great Again hat in his locker in 2015, it was a gut punch harder than any Helmet Catch or torn ACL. I never expected Brady to be an activist, or even a liberal; rich, white men are usually neither. But to see him openly supporting a wannabe tyrant and bigot, calling him a “friend,” even, that made me interrogate my fandom more than any amount of (alleged) cheating ever could have. The man who I had seen as the greatest quarterback of all time supported a man who thought my Latino brethren were “bad hombres,” rapists, murderers, and people who deserve to be kicked out of America.
In 2017, can sports be truly apolitical? Have they ever been?
It didn’t help that, upon the horror show that was Election Day 2016, Patriots coach Bill Belichick personally sent a (poorly-written) note of congratulations to Trump. While Belichick is more outwardly unlikeable than Brady (his gruff demeanor, underhanded tactics, and general antagonism lend themselves to hatred), he always seemed a smart and calculating man. I saw him as the NFL’s more villainous version of Gregg Popovich; a wise sage who just didn’t put up with anyone’s shit. But true colors have blazed since November 8th; while Popovich has, on more than one occasion, spoken passionately against Trump’s election, Belchick congratulated him, trying to frame his “friendship and loyalty,” as an apolitical allegiance.
But in 2017, can sports be truly apolitical? Have they ever been?
Suggesting that sports and politics don’t or shouldn’t mix ignores centuries of history – they have always been a stage for meaningful activism and global diplomacy; they are games that are inextricably tied to nationalism (and, in the case of the NFL, heavily subsidized by taxpayers). Still, the question of when to put politics aside for the escapism and entertainment that sports can provide is complicated. There is no unilateral decision that can be made here; it has to be on a personal case-by-case basis.
At the end of the day, no one but you has to decide what to watch and what to support. If you wish to go to games every Sunday, tweet about the moments that take your breath away, and generally ignore anything outside of the gridiron, that’s your prerogative. But, as the last week has demonstrated, more and more Americans are unwilling to accept silence in the face of an administration whose policies are stark moral failures. One need only look at Uber, which saw massive boycotts after CEO Travis Kalanick accepted a role on Trump’s Advisory council (he has since resigned from the role and apologized for the action).
Will rooting for the Patriots feel as good as it did before? Never again.
The NFL (and sports industry as a whole) is bigger than Uber, but the general principle is the same: by staying silent on politics, teams and players are taking a stand, one that says sports are more important than the suffering of millions. It also puts in stark contrast the actions of men like Colin Kaepernick or even New England’s own Martellus Bennett (who said this week he would not visit the White House if the Patriots won on Sunday). Those players, and many others, fought against the culture of single-mindedness and silence in the NFL in order to bring attention to issues they believe in. That the NFL’s most recognizable face and most celebrated coach did not follow suit hurt. That they openly celebrated the other side more than hurt; it has lost them respect in the eyes of many, myself included.
Is that loss of respect enough to stop me from watching and cheering for New England on Sunday as they try for their fifth ring in my lifetime? No. But will it feel as good as it did before? Never again. It can’t, not while the two main constants in the franchise publicly support a man who hates everything that I stand for.