There are always choices in life: to be remembered as a great football coach with six Super Bowl wins — or to be remembered as a great football coach who accepted the Medal of Freedom from a president who incited a racist mob that stormed the US Capitol.
In the end, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick turned down the award that’s considered the nation’s highest civilian honor. You could say it was the greatest defensive move ever made by a coach who is known as a defensive genius. Or you could call it what it also was: the right choice.
Belichick has made no secret of his support for President Trump. In the 2016 presidential election race, Belichick wrote a letter to Trump, calling him “the ultimate competitor and fighter.” Trump has in turn called Belichick “a very good friend of mine” and “a winner.” But that was before the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. How do you accept an honor from a president who, on the day of that attack, told the rioters, “We love you. You’re special.” You can’t — not without also owning Trump’s legacy of lies and seditious conduct.
Belichick understood that after Jan. 6, there’s no middle ground with Trump. In his statement, he said that after the “tragic events of last week” the decision was made not to move forward with the award. Why? “Above all, I am an American citizen, with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.” He could not let Trump hang that medal around his neck and still exemplify those values. It would weigh him down and tarnish him forever, with his players and the world.
For Belichick, the coaching call of his life came after years of calls on the field that turned him into a legend. Under his leadership, the Patriots dominated the NFL. Then longtime quarterback Tom Brady left in March, along with others, and this season, Belichick presided over the worst Patriots team in 20 years. No one in sports likes losing. But Belichick, who was often charmless in victory, accepted the Patriots losing season with more grace than Trump accepted his.
I actually liked Belichick more in his role as loser. Losing makes you humble, and more human. Viewed through the distance of a television screen, he also seemed to be enjoying himself a little more — although maybe the mask required during the coronavirus pandemic masked his true misery. Sportswriters will disagree, but I also thought sticking with quarterback Cam Newton through his disappointing season showed character on Belichick’s part. Newton deserved his coach’s support. He was working hard, he just couldn’t deliver.
He didn’t stick with Trump, which must have been a huge disappointment to a president desperate for a safe harbor in the post-Jan. 6 storm. It’s a clear message that Trump finally went too far.
Because of Trump’s immigration policies and his attacks on Colin Kaepernick and other Black athletes who kneel during the national anthem, a White House invitation to championship teams became a PR nightmare. When the Boston Red Sox went in 2019, nearly all of the team’s Black and Hispanic players skipped the event, along with manager Alex Cora. (John Henry, who owns the Sox, also owns The Boston Globe.) When the Patriots went in 2017, a few dozen players didn’t show, including Brady, for family reasons. The Patriots didn’t go in 2019, because of scheduling problems.
Before the attack on the Capitol, going to the White House was easier to rationalize. You were respecting the office, not the president who occupied it. Now, there’s no escaping the larger, ugly context. Trump is a discredited president. Unable to accept the truth of his loss, he fed poisonous conspiracy theories to supporters, who were eager to swallow them. At Trump’s behest, they marched on the Capitol. A Capitol Police officer died, along with four other people involved in the attack. Trump now faces a second impeachment, and there are calls for him to resign.
That was the backdrop for Belichick receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He made the right call and turned it down. But it took a lot, didn’t it?