Bill Belichick doesn’t take advice from the sports pages. Who knows if he takes advice from anyone? But throughout the day Monday, the Patriots head coach was bombarded with unsolicited advice anyway, a near-unanimous chorus that implored him not to go to the White House this week, where he was scheduled to stand alongside President Trump and accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
By Monday evening, he’d apparently heard enough, releasing a statement saying he would decline.
It cannot have been easy. This is the nation’s highest civilian honor, one established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and given “to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
That’s a very hard thing to give up. But doing the right thing can be hard. And given the extraordinary times in which we are living, given the reality that Trump has been charged with helping incite the Jan. 6 riot that rocked the Capitol, this was absolutely the right thing to do. And with it, Belichick stands tall with a tangible example that he lives by the same credo with which he coaches: Team above self.
Ultimately, he put his team, his players, his franchise, his league, and his country first.
In his own words: “Recently, I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients. Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award.
“Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom, and democracy. I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team. One of my most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality, and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions.
“Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team, and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award.”
Bravo, Bill Belichick.
How could he have gone? His 47-year NFL run and 20-year tenure with the Patriots (a nickname that has never felt more ironic, or more important) have been built on the simple tenet of sacrificing individual glory for the good of the whole. That’s how he built a résumé worthy of consideration as the greatest of all time, the way he persuaded generation after generation of players to buy into his winning ways.
This single act of personal pride could have cost him his locker room.
As risky as it would have been under any circumstance to stand for a photo op with the same president who has drawn so many verbal battle lines with the NFL we’ve lost count and whose infamous line called those who dared kneel during the national anthem “sons of bitches” who should be “fired,” the Patriots coach probably could have gotten away with it.
But to do so in the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol would have been a complete slap in the face to everyone horrified by the insurrection and the role Trump played in inciting it.
That riot was emboldened and endorsed by a president still unwilling to accept the results of the election, a president who is facing a second impeachment, who has been banned from every social media platform for inciting violence, and who on Sunday lost the support of the PGA America, which terminated its agreement to host the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey.
The riot included acts of disrespect to our flag that make the anthem protests pale in comparison — including the Confederate flag being carried through the halls of the building (an act that didn’t even happen during the Civil War) while Congress attempted to certify the Electoral College vote. An American flag was pulled down, tossed to the ground, and replaced with a Trump flag, reflecting the mob’s true loyalty.
The riot changed everything. But it seems Belichick had already been changing, those season-long conversations with his players bringing a deeper understanding of the world around him. The NFL as a whole has worked to change too, spending time and money throughout this bizarre, pandemic-altered season to advance social justice movements. Commissioner Roger Goodell changed the most, completely reversing course on Colin Kaepernick, expressing regret for not hearing what the former 49ers quarterback was saying about those initial acts of kneeling defiance, apologizing for Kaepernick’s ultimate exclusion from the league.
Belichick reflected on those initiatives in his season-ending news conference and it is those words that we understand why he had to say no.
“I learned a lot about our players,” he said. “This was a very educational year from all the social justice meetings and things that we had in the spring which carried over into the season. I think our team did a great job of that. We had great leadership from Jason [McCourty], Devin [McCourty], Matt [Slater], and many others — Brandon King, guys that are involved in just many, many different aspects of that.
“But, most importantly, just bringing the awareness within the team for each other and us getting to know each other and appreciate each other’s background, story, and thoughts. And that was very, again, educational for me, as well as everybody else. I think we all benefited from it, and again, things that we’ve done this year that will help us going forward.”
Of course there are football concerns going forward. The Patriots need a roster overhaul, and they have plenty of cap room to do it. Had Belichick been seen standing side by side with Trump, potential free agents might have been swayed to stay away.
Those were the risks he was facing, but he ended them with one simple word.
“No” to a president more interested in moving the goalposts and changing the narrative about his dying, defiant days in office, “no” to being used for the ultimate misdirection play.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.