Sideline Cut: How does Tom Brady really feel about Trump?
All American-hero has been sucked into vortex of fear since new president took office
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws a pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers last month. Photograph: John Cetrino/EPA
Tom Brady has maintained a standard of uncomplicated brilliance since his breakthrough year in 2002. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times
For Tom Brady, the plea for national clemency is fairly straightforward. Why can’t a guy simply throw the football with superhuman accuracy while looking Ralph Lauren-catalogue handsome without having to justify his friendships?
All week in Houston, the New England quarterback has been plagued by persistent media questions about his the extent of his bromance with US president Donald Trump. Brady has led the Patriots to another Super Bowl game after a sensational winter of passing yards and the kind of pathologically cool decision-making that sets quarterbacks apart. He is 39 years old and has maintained a standard of uncomplicated brilliance since his breakthrough year in 2002.
That was the same year when he was invited, after an extraordinary Super Bowl triumph, to judge a Miss USA beauty pageant, into which Trump was then investing his energies. The two men clicked easily. The Don, not easily impressed, was smitten by Brady’s sunny, uncomplicated winner’s aura and the pure American-ness of his smile.
Brady would subsequently comment admiringly of Trump’s voracious success as a businessman and as a self-made celebrity. His friendship began years before Trump re-invented himself into what he has suddenly become: the most feared and emotionally volatile political figure on the already-addled planet.
To Brady, who moves in the rarefied circles of the super-elite, he is still just the Donald. Remaining true to their friendship was simply an extension of the kind of loyalty on which a successful team thrives.
“It’s just: if you know someone it doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say or do, right?” he reasoned in a sympathetic radio interview last week.
There are two ways of looking at this. One is to acknowledge that Brady is just a sports star who has been sucked into the vortex of fear and hysteria of the tens of millions of people who can’t believe that Trump is actually in the White House. But the other is to look at Brady and wonder if he is for real. Is it possible for someone who holds such an exalted position in American cultural life to remain so narrow in his social and political outlook?
Brady is one of the fascinating American sports stories of the modern age and has been omnipotent for so long that it is easy to forget the obscurity of his early years. He was the Willie Loman who made it. Brady came to New England as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. He wasn’t even the third-choice quarterback and seemed only likely to get game time if most of the team came down with influenza. His main assets were a fierce devotion to practice and preparedness and a self-belief that must have seemed like delusion to his more senior team-mates.
He repeatedly told other fringe team mates that he would be starting quarterback within three seasons. It must have sounded like insanity. Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots starting quarterback, had signed a 10-year deal worth $100 million: he was the man around whom the club/business was framing its future.
Years later, it was reported that Brady, upon first meeting Bob Kraft, the Patriots owner, introduced himself as “the best decision this organisation ever made”.
Bill Belichick liked the ferocity of Brady’s application and elevated him to back-up, his position on the night of September 21st 2001 when Bledsoe was blindsided in a shockingly violent touchline tackle by Mo Lewis of the New York Jets. He was gravely injured with internal bruising, and just like that, Brady was in.
By January, he had guided the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title. Bledsoe, after recovering, watched as Brady sort of assumed his sporting life and identity. Bledsoe was a folk hero around New England but the fans were too busy celebrating to empathise all that much. Before the next season, he had left.
Brady’s supernova ascendancy was a marvellous story. But the clinical brutality with which Bledsoe was dropped – not for loss of form but for shipping a life-threatening injury – is the shadow story which proves that professional sport is, at its essence, a soulless game. Bledsoe never did win a Super Bowl as a starting quarterback, while Brady continued, winter after winter, to elevate himself into the ranks of all-time great NFL throwers. On Sunday night, he might occupy a place that no other NFL quarterback has visited with five Super Bowl championships.
So his dismay at having to answer questions about his loyalty to Trump is, on the surface, understandable. Why must it be politicised?
Brady must know the answer. You don’t achieve what he has done without being wise to the complexities and hypocrisies of human ambition and endurance and loyalty.
By 2015, when Trump’s presidential bid was gaining momentum, Brady can’t but have realised that the candidate was using his name for political leverage. “In Massachusetts, I’m at 48 per cent. You know why? Tom Brady said Trump’s the greatest,” he boasted when chasing the Republican nomination. Since then, Trump has name-checked Brady on numerous occasions, including his final address before taking up residence in the White House.
Brady’s sporting prowess and his unerring strides towards the embodiment of the enduring male American dream; his wealth; his fantastical lifestyle, his Instagram snaps place him as one of those barely graspable figures that people find it fun to either love or loathe in a purely superficial way.
Nobody really cared about what he thought about real-world stuff, whether mundane or esoteric, because of the glorious diversion he provided as a vivid representation of the American emphasis on winning. And because of how he throws the ball.
Frighten and unsettle
As US president, Donald Trump has alienated and appalled at least half of the American population and continues to frighten and unsettle many more people around the world. He has, in his bellicose way, used his political platform to align himself to Tom Brady.
The implication is that they share the same values and are made of the same stuff. But Brady has insulted nobody. Team-mates have testified to his qualities as a person. He is hardly Chuck Feeney but he does his bit for charity in ways that – unlike president Trump’s – are easily traceable. Just this week, he spoke movingly about the influence of his parents on his life. He has generally tried to do the right thing.
And he is one of the most famous athletes on the planet and one of the best paid. On Sunday night, he has a chance to throw himself into the history books. That puts him in an exalted position and it is natural for people to wonder. His friendship with Trump, self-made billionaire and the ultimate salesman of self, goes back many years. That’s fine. But in his reinvention as politician, Trump has broadcast a personal and political worldview that many millions of Brady admirers find deeply offensive and intrinsically opposed to their understanding of American values. He has done this while using Tom Brady’s name as a friend and backer.
So it’s a question that will inevitably float around in the background even as the world watches the most famous #12 in sports do his godlike thing on another Super Bowl Sunday night.
Is Tom Brady really okay with this?