Bill Belichick is professional football’s version of Grumpy Cat: a seemingly dour and prickly coach who was pronounced “hard to love” in a recent New York Times article about his team, the New England Patriots, which heads to the Super Bowl in two weeks.
It’s a reputation that Belichick has seemed unable—or unwilling—to shake, despite his perpetually tousled hair and Every Man hoodies.
Enter Mike Tomlin.
In a couple of seconds of video broadcast on Facebook Live last week, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers enabled a startling transfiguration. When the clouds parted, Belichick looked like an affable statesman, and it was the universally beloved Tomlin who looked like a jerk.
In the video, Tomlin is shown exhorting his team in the locker room after they eked out a playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on January 15th. It appears he didn’t know he was being recorded when he used several expletives, called the Patriots “a-holes,” and complained that the Steelers had several disadvantages in Sunday night’s game—which, sure enough, they lost 36-17.
In the produce section of the supermarket, this sort of talk would be recognized as sour grapes.
In an NFL locker room, it’s pretty tame, and could be dismissed but for one thing: the cross that Tomlin wears around his neck.
Tomlin is a professed Christian, who in 2009 told Baptist Press, “First and foremost, I want people to know who I am and what the most important thing is in my life, my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
“Football is what we do; faith is who we are all the time,” he said to accolades.
Baptist Press went on to quote a player who likened Tomlin to a “godly father in the household.”
“It’s a great blessing when a man of God is leading your team,” Nick Eason, now a defensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans, said.
To be fair, compared to the genuinely horrifying “locker-room talk” of the recently concluded political campaign, Tomlin’s words were mild. The coach may not have sounded like a “godly father” but he certainly wasn’t an abusive one. And in New England, where many people proudly display “Masshole” bumper stickers on their cars, Tomlin’s language was even less provocative than in other parts of the country.
In fact, a cynic might even have wondered if the whole thing was staged—so as to fire up Steelers Nation for the upcoming challenge.
In fact, it seems to have been a singular act of stupidity and hubris by a player who decided to record and post Tomlin’s remarks. The player, wide receiver Antonio Brown, was fined $10,000 for the infraction—a pittance of the $10 million he took home in 2016. The bigger damage was suffered by Tomlin.
Media analysts have said the video made it seem that Tomlin has no control over his team. Worse, those of us who have long admired Tomlin have to readjust our understanding of what a “godly father” looks like in an NFL locker room.
It’s not the same, apparently, as the one in your living room.
Belichick, meanwhile, is looking downright cuddly in comparison.
His adorable response to the brouhaha—besides beating the expletives out of the Steelers last night—was to say, “As you know I’m not on Snapface and all that so I don’t really get those . . . I’m not too worried about what they put on InstantChat.”
That, coupled with a Twitter photo showing Belichick napping with his girlfriend on the Nantucket ferry recently, threatens to vault him, possibly unwillingly, from Grumpy Cat to Cute Cat Meme.
Ever loyal, Steelers fans have already closed the book on Snapfacegate and are ready to return to the longstanding narrative that they, not the Cowboys, are America’s team, and that Belichick and the Patriots are wicked. (Even though the first thing Tom Brady did after Sunday’s win was say hi to his “beautiful mom.”)
Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured an image of Star Wars’ Death Star and the headline “Steelers vs. The Evil Empire.” Unfortunately for Tomlin and his Steelers, they lost some moral high ground on Facebook Live last week, and their fans must find a way to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”—or, in this case, the locker-room wall.
It’s a lesson worth remembering for anyone who wears a religious symbol—or affixes a fish sticker—to the back of the car: Don’t just advertise your beliefs. Live them.