As a Baltimore Ravens fan, I am legally required to hate Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Yet at the risk of being excommunicated from Ravens Nation, I must admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Brady, who is by all accounts a devoted father, a terrific teammate, and a loyal friend.
Unfortunately, his loyalty to one particular friend is now receiving hostile scrutiny from the national media.
Here’s the back story: In September 2015, a “Make America Great Again” hat turned up in Brady’s locker at Gillette Stadium. In a radio interview, Brady noted that Donald Trump was “a good friend” and a longtime golf partner whom he first met in 2002, when judging one of Trump’s beauty pageants. Trump had sent Brady the MAGA hat via Patriots owner Robert Kraft, another Trump pal. Brady said of Trump: “It’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to accomplish as an entrepreneur and then as a television star and now running for political office.”
A week or so later, with the MAGA hat still sitting in his locker—Brady called it “a nice keepsake”—reporters asked if he thought Trump could win the presidency. “I hope so,” Brady replied. “That would be great. There’d be a putting green on the White House lawn, I’m sure of that.”
This remark caused a stir, forcing Brady to clarify that his light-hearted comment was not meant to be an endorsement of Trump. “I don’t even know what the issues are,” he said. “I haven’t paid attention to politics in a long time.”
In a subsequent interview with Bloomberg TV, Brady was asked why he had spoken favorably about Trump. “He’s a friend, that’s why,” Brady said with a laugh. “Friends are important in life.”
Fast-forward to October 2016: At the New England quarterback’s weekly press conference, a reporter asked how Brady would feel if his children heard Trump’s vulgar “locker room talk” that was captured by an Access Hollywood microphone in 2005. Brady smiled, thanked the press for coming, and left the podium.
Then, at an Election Eve rally in New Hampshire, Trump announced that Brady had called him to say “I voted for you.” When an Instagram user asked Brady’s wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, to confirm whether she and her husband supported Trump for president, Bündchen gave an emphatic, one-word response: “NO!” For his part, Brady declined to reveal whether he had called or voted for Trump, explaining that his wife had told him to avoid talking politics.
More recently, at a pre-inauguration dinner on January 19th, Trump informed Kraft and other attendees that Brady had phoned to offer his congratulations. This put the Trump-Brady relationship back in the headlines. In a radio appearance, Brady did not explicitly confirm the congratulatory call—though he did say “I have called him, yes, in the past”—and he expressed bewilderment that people were making “such a big deal” about their friendship. “I don’t want to get into it,” he said, “but if you know someone it doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say or they do.”
Critics weren’t satisfied. “That’s not good enough,” snorted New York Daily News reporter Seth Walder. “If you’re friends with Trump, you’re friends with racism, bigotry and misogyny.”
Ponder that statement: According to Walder’s logic, anyone who counts Donald Trump as a friend—even those, like Brady, whose friendship with Trump has nothing to do with politics—must now publicly denounce him as a racist, bigot, and misogynist. Such thinking reflects a worldview in which politics and tribal affiliation are everything. Thus, because Brady is a faithful friend, he is—in Walder’s words—“tacitly condoning the president whether he means to or not.”
Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Jacobs makes a similar argument:
Brady has had every opportunity to clarify his friendship with Trump and has mostly declined. Are they just golf buddies? Does he believe in Trump’s policies? Did he vote for Trump? Did he vote at all? Brady’s opaqueness only fuels the discussion.
Maybe I missed something, but since when are professional athletes expected to disclose their political beliefs, presidential choice, and voting record? Tom Brady is not running for office. He’s just a football player—an unusually famous and successful player, to be sure, but not someone with any obligation to share his views on public policy. By his own admission, Brady does not follow politics and knows very little about the hot-button issues. If he did cast a ballot for Trump, well, so did close to 63 million other Americans.
The media uproar over Brady’s relationship with Trump is yet another example of how politics has infiltrated seemingly every aspect of American life. If a pro athlete ostentatiously uses his platform to become a social activist—as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has done—then yes, it is reasonable to press him for an explanation. But if an athlete merely says nice things about a personal friend in the political arena, it is ridiculous to demand that he openly approve or disavow specific policy positions.
Of course, this isn’t really about Tom Brady. It’s about Donald Trump. Many journalists are opposed to anything that “normalizes” Trump, because they regard him as a uniquely odious and dangerous figure. Brady won’t be the last athlete to come under fire for his relationship with the forty-fifth president. Indeed, a whole host of Trump-friendly athletes—including Brady’s longtime NFL rival Peyton Manning—could find themselves hounded by the press.
It may be impossible for certain reporters to separate politics from sports. But in the week leading up to Brady’s record seventh Super Bowl appearance on February 5th, the focus should be on his accomplishments as a quarterback, not his friendship with Donald Trump.