Belichick, Brady & Kraft’s relationship with Trump is complicated for Patriots fans of color
Why some Boston sports fan are struggling to support their team and others aren’t
The road to a Super Bowl is never easy — not even for the New England Patriots. But even with Brady’s four-game suspension, losing fan favorite Gronk, and several key player injuries, the New England Patriots have returned. Yet what should be a joyous occasion for Patriots fans is muddied — especially for some Patriots fans of color — by the Patriots organization’s apparent relationship with President Donald Trump, who days into his administration signed an executive order to kick-start the construction of the controversial pipeline that threatens the treaty rights and water supply of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux, and has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to start construction of a wall along the southern border of the U.S., presumably to keep Mexicans from coming into the United States.
And although Trump didn’t name civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis specifically, the new president also took a jab at Lewis during his inauguration speech, saying, “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action” — a sentiment Trump also shared via Twitter. Lewis said he doesn’t consider Trump a “legitimate president.”
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has said, “If you know someone, it doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say or do,” and has questioned why his relationship with Trump is such a big deal. During a Super Bowl opening night news conference, Brady asked rhetorically, “What’s going on in the world? I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
For a lot of American families, foreign-born citizens, athletes, an Oscar-nominated director, refugees, and others seeking a better life, this past week has been anything but positive.
There’s a saying I used to hear. Something my great-grandmother told my grandma, and my grandma told my mom, and my mom told me: “Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are.” For the pillars of the New England Patriots organization — owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and Brady — that friend is Trump.
I’ve loved Brady for as long as I’ve loved football. While all the other college students dressed up for Halloween as the typical nurse, maid, or knockoff version of Batman, I dressed up as Brady. He’s been my quarterback for my whole life. But while I’m still rooting for the Patriots to pull it out on Sunday, I’m certainly not looking forward to Kraft being presented with the trophy. I won’t find amusement in Belichick’s demeanor, and for the first time in my whole life, I won’t be rooting for Brady. The only person who I talk to who is reconsidering her fandom of the New England Patriots is my mother.
I say all this as someone who is as New England as they come. I’m a Martha’s Vineyard vacationer, Black-Dog-hoodie-wearing, Dunkin’-Donuts-Pumpkin-Spice-Latte-drinking, New-England-Patriots-loving, African-American fan. My father, an immigrant from Haiti, grew up on football and the Patriots in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now serves as an Army officer. My mother, a combination of ethnicities including black and Filipino, grew up a sports fan in the city that gave the world the game of basketball — Springfield, Massachusetts. Although I’m from Western Massachusetts, the roots of this passionate Boston sports fan run deep. Almost every year during my college experience (2013 to 2017) at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Red Sox or the Patriots have been in championship contention.
Before my college experience, the Boston Celtics won an NBA championship in 2008 and were in championship contention in 2010. Attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the flagship university, means repping the home team always. Nobody does it quite like UMass in that regard. Imagine 30,000 students, rioting in bleeding anger or uniting in celebration, as happened in 2015 over the Patriots’ dramatic Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seattle Seahawks. When you’re from New England, winning isn’t new to you. It’s not some once-in-a-lifetime deal. It’s a habit — a culture.
On Jan. 23, Brady, a leader of that winning culture, was interviewed by Boston sports radio station WEEI. Among other things, he discussed his 16-year friendship with Trump. “Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call,” Brady said. “But … that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”
For some Patriots fans of color, a friendship with Trump isn’t bothersome. “Donald Trump has nothing to do with my opinion towards the Patriots,” said Boston native and former UMass Minuteman football player Peter Ngobidi, 22. “Their relationship is separate from the business … The Patriots ball. Brady’s not racist toward me.”
Ngobidi spent much of his football career playing regular season home games at the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium while the UMass’ football stadium was under construction. Like the Patriots, Ngobidi spent time playing with teammates who did not share his political views. “For us it wasn’t anything serious. Being a Trump supporter, or Hillary supporter in the locker room doesn’t really change anything. We are all in there because we have a job to do.”
Diamante Spencer, 21, UMass track and field athlete and record holder for the indoor women’s 200-meter dash, grew up a Patriots fan. Although she still supports the Patriots and hopes they win on Sunday, she said that rooting for them feels a little weird this year. “As Patriots fans, it feels like we’re always defending this team to someone because we’re the most hated — not because of Trump, but because we’re the best and it’s proven,” said Spencer. “But this year, instead of defending nonsense things like Deflategate, we’re dealing with Trump and it’s kind of indefensible. I’m not going to defend that. He threatens a lot of people’s lives.”
Many Pats fans believe the game and politics should be separate. But for Boston, the two are seemingly joined at the hip. You can’t talk Boston sports without mentioning the most decorated Celtic and NBA player of all time, Bill Russell, standing on the forefront of civil rights movement or Pumpsie Green becoming the first African-American Red Sox player in franchise history nearly 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
For UMass Amherst alum and Dorchester, Massachusetts, native Sheena Jeune it’s more complicated. Her father, 63, a Haitian immigrant, lived in Lebanon and New York City before landing in Boston where he got married, had three children, and worked for UPS for 25 years before retiring. Necker Jeune was part of foreign-born population that makes up the more than a quarter of Boston’s residents. Jeune described her father as a man who’s thankful to this country for providing him with a better life. On Trump’s eighth day in office, he signed an a “Muslim ban” that caused an eruption of global confusion, sparked airport protests, and prompted legal action from the American Civil Liberties Union. Jeune’s father, a man who’s not a big sports fan but roots for Boston teams, said he’s now become “shut off” since the election.
Although Jeune said she is not supportive of members of the Patriots organization’s relationship with Trump, she believes they’re the only ones bold enough to publicly admit that relationship. “Kraft isn’t the only owner to have voted for Trump, or be friends with Trump. He’s just the only one to admit it … so why should I stop supporting the Patriots because of him? There’s other owners too, you just don’t know about them. There’s a lot of racism in the NFL,” said Jeune.
This is the Super Bowl matchup that the 2016 season deserves. The New England Patriots, a team loved by New Englanders for their sheer dominance and hated by nearly everyone else for their alleged cheating ways and seasons ravaged by scandal — vs. the Atlanta Falcons, an underdog team that has bulldozed its way through some of the NFL’s best to be in the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. The politics etched into this are too epic to ignore. If the saying is true, “politics is a sport,” then given the disparaging comments Trump made about Lewis — the stage has been set for Super Bowl LI: “Donald Trump and friends” vs. “John Lewis and the family.”
It’s easy to see this one as “good” vs. “evil,” but the breakdown is more nuanced.
Atlanta, although it’s a chocolate city, is part of the conservative state of Georgia. Boston, a city of immigrants representative of America, is part of the larger, more liberal state of Massachusetts. The truth is New England is not an ultrawhite space in America. Boston comes in at one of the most diverse places in the country. The Patriots aren’t composed of an ultrawhite fan base. The same city that brought you New Edition and educated Martin Luther King Jr. at Boston University is the same city that reps the home team — hard. Now, the only question is how hard does the home team rep them?
The NFL has seen one of its most political seasons ever. San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the charge with his controversial kneeling during the national anthem, which in turn garnered support from players across the league — two of which were tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive back Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots who made headlines for raising their fists during the national anthem before their narrow victory over the Arizona Cardinals earlier this season.
Regardless of who wins the chip on Super Bowl Sunday, that team will be the first championship under the Trump administration. With African-Americans comprising the majority of NFL players, that franchise will have to recon with the question of whether a full Super Bowl team will greet Trump at the White House despite his comments and often blatant disrespect of communities of color. When asked if he will go to the White House, Bennett said, “I’ve got to win the Super Bowl first, but most likely no.”
The words that are etched into the Statue of Liberty are written by Emma Lazarus. “Give me your tired, your poor” — I suspect she was talking about people like Necker Jeune. “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” — I have this gnawing feeling that she imagined Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” With only a week and some change into a new presidency, that light has dimmed. And with Super Bowl LI upon us — I can’t help but wonder if Brady’s mom told him the same thing mine told me: “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” As a Patriots fan of color, I have to ask the question: Mr. Brady, who exactly are you?