The two weeks between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl are usually incredibly boring. The same interviews, the same analysis for a game that Vegas picked correctly a month ago. But thanks to Donald Trump, this year it’s different.
This is not some tongue-in-cheek rant against the New England Patriots. This is an acknowledgment that sports are political, and rooting for the team this year has political significance. The admonishment from fans and some sports pundits that sports are entertainment and politics is serious business and that the two should be separate is a lie. Sports have always been political in America, especially for black people.
President Trump chose a white supremacist and terrorist sympathizer as his chief of staff and a National Security Council member. He refused to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last week he instituted a “Muslim ban” written by a white supremacist. Seattle Seahawks quarterback (and Ciara’s “come up” husband) Russell Wilson spoke out against the ban. Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, respectively, have spoken out about the ban and other Trump policies.
ESPN’s resident Stacey Dash impersonator, Sage Steele, went concern-trolling on Instagram that Muslim-ban protests at LAX might delay a sick child getting to the hospital. ( I guess sick kids don’t matter during championship parades that clog streets, though, right?) Two of the most influential sports voices, King James and Sir Charles, on the left and right respectively, also went at it this week. Bobby Fischer couldn’t have executed a better king-takes-knight move than LeBron did, but in ethering Charles Barkley, LeBron James also displayed the fault lines between the old and new NBA players’ public roles.
Simmering in the background of all of these stories is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s unwavering support for President Donald Trump. A story that has been touched upon by great sportswriters like Dave Zirin but that major outlets like ESPN, FS1 and NBC have assiduously tried to avoid.
The fact that so many athletes have spoken out against Trump and his most recent policies, but Brady gets a relative pass for his stance, is telling. It’s a reflection of the false sports-vs.-politics narrative that only exists for white people who can afford, either mentally or financially, to pretend that multibillion-dollar industries that rely almost exclusively on black and brown bodies for profit are somehow a quirk of nature and not a result of hundreds of years of racial politics and policies. Athletes influence and are influenced by policy, so when an athlete or coaching staff advocates for political leaders, it should matter.
From the earliest times in American sports, wonderfully detailed in William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, there have been politics surrounding athletics, especially for black people. Immigration laws are twisted to allow athletes in to play sports while refugees from nations we are bombing are blocked. Black parents are arrested for trying to get their kids into better schools, but boundaries are bent to let black high school athletes attend elite prep schools.
The same criminal-justice system that is indifferent to the destruction of innocent black bodies at the hands of police will contort itself to protect black men accused of gun violence, rape and abuse so long as they can catch a football or hit a 3-point shot. Sports journalism itself is a distinctly political enterprise. Does anyone really believe that the “crouching black conservative, hidden white moderate” politics of the Stephen A. Smith-Max Kellerman, Skip Bayless-Shannon Sharpe, Ernie Johnson-Charles Barkley types of shows are an accident?
All of which brings us to this Sunday’s game and the Patriots’ triumvirate of power: Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
If you root for the Patriots, you’re rooting for Brady and you’re rooting for Trump to brag and take credit for his political ally and friend’s win during his first year as president. Trump is desperate for a win and notorious for taking credit for the accomplishments of anyone associated with him.
Brady isn’t just a Republican; he’s a right-wing reactionary. He skipped meeting President Barack Obama when the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2015, a move employed by the most right-wing and likely racist athletes across various leagues. He endorsed Trump during the election of 2016. It wasn’t an accident that Brady just happened to have a “Make America Great Again” hat, turned to face the cameras, at his locker for an interview he knew was happening; it was an endorsement. If he disagreed with Trump’s policies as president, he could say so (his wife did). But he won’t because he doesn’t. Belichick and Kraft are on the Trump train, too.
The Patriots’ roster is 66 percent African American (league average is about 70 percent), yet the Patriots have featured the largest number of starting white receivers and running backs of any team in the league in the last decade—Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, just to name a few. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but Belichick is a genius—he could win with anybody—so why go out of his way to pick so many white athletes in offensive-skill positions when most other teams have none? Belichick is making a point about team “culture” and composition. He wants a white team, which isn’t a far cry from the Trump administration’s desire to create a mostly white Cabinet and government if they can get away with it.
Don’t pretend for a minute that the whiteness of the New England Patriots isn’t noticed and isn’t a selling point for a select set of fans (the NBA tried it for years). The sports world’s Uncle Ruckus on SlimFast, Jason Whitlock, exhorts teams to “whiten up” like New England to be successful, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Brady and the Patriots are deemed the “Great White Hope” by white nationalist sports fans.
Sports matter, and sports are political in America. Whether it’s the Miracle on Ice or teams protesting Donald Sterling or hosting veterans at games, who you root for and what they stand for matters. Under a president who brags about bigotry and a team whose leaders openly associate with him, there is no separation of your values from who you root for this Sunday. This weekend, as you sit down to watch the Super Bowl, show that you care about this country, democracy, decency and diversity. Watch the Super Bowl as an American, not as a Patriot.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.