As certain as it is that Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady will one day be in pro football’s hall of fame, they are no profile in courage. They are delivering, on sport’s biggest stage, a textbook example of enabling a bully.
On the eve of their seventh Super Bowl together as the respective owner, coach, and quarterback of the New England Patriots, these three have assiduously avoided any substantive comment about their mutual pal, President Trump — other than Kraft saying Trump was unfailingly supportive after Kraft’s wife, Myra, died in 2011. Kraft, who, like many businessmen, gives to both Democratic and Republican candidates, surely knows that private sweetness has nothing to do with Trump otherwise being one of the most sour and retrograde figures to occupy the White House in American history.
Given the enormity of Trump’s boorishness, silence by these top sports figures amounts to tacit approval for the new president to go about his horrific business of dividing the nation and icing multicultural progress. The Patriots leadership trio has not pushed back once on Trump’s behavior — behavior that violates almost every rule on the federal government’s stopbullying.gov list: pushing the “birther” lie on President Obama; castigating Mexicans, Muslim Gold Star parents, and Black Lives Matter; mocking the physically challenged and John McCain’s war imprisonment; and whining about voter fraud that does not exist.
While many athletes said Trump’s boasting of grabbing women’s vaginas was not “locker-room talk,” the leaders of the Patriots’ locker room were mute. The only thing Brady offered during all this time was the display of a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker and a quip that a Trump presidency would be “great.” All Belichick offered was his congratulations to Trump for running “a tremendous campaign” in the face of an “unbelievable, slanted and negative media.” All Kraft offered was his attendance at an inaugural donor dinner where Trump sang Kraft’s praise and boasted that Brady had just called with congratulations.
Belichick claims his praise of Trump is not politically motivated but comes only from “a friendship and loyalty to Donald.” That reveals the extent to which the new bully in chief has cultivated the Patriots’ loyalty. Here, after all, is Belichick, a white man who commands a majority black team, standing behind his oath of loyalty as his pal earns the praise of Klan leaders and neo-Nazis and nominates an attorney general who was once denied a federal judgeship for alleged racist comments.
In the abstract, sports figures owe nothing to fans but their performance on the field. But in a nation where sports are intertwined with politics — especially when owners get taxpayers to pay for stadiums, infrastructure, and victory parades — what team leaders say matters. In the case of Kraft, Belichick, and Brady, their friendly relations with Trump make it even more incumbent on them to speak out.
Last year, America buried Muhammad Ali, who sacrificed his boxing title by refusing to be inducted into the draft during the Vietnam War. Inspired in part by Ali, many star athletes have in recent years protested police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men.
Against this backdrop, Kraft, Belichick and Brady starkly stand out. If they were to confirm their support of Trump but push back against behavior they would never tolerate in their own organization, Trump might get a message there are limits to his demeaning of others. Instead, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway last week said, “President Trump is just so grateful that friends like Tom Brady are loyal and can ignore the shrapnel, the verbal shrapnel.”
With Trump’s verbal and political shrapnel piercing through the heart of civility, equality and democracy, the loyalty of the Patriots’ leadership amounts to laughing while the bully torments much of the nation and the world.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.