What Tom Brady has done over two decades is the equivalent of dancing through raindrops without getting wet. He has dominated the most lauded position in American sports—quarterback—to incredible effect. After being drafted 199th in the year 2000 to little notice, he is now set to play in his 10th Super Bowl this Sunday. No other quarterback has ever played in more than five.
We know factoids about him: that he doesn’t eat strawberries, and that he claims his special TB12 dietary and training plan has allowed him to stretch out his productive years like no one who has ever played the game. And yet behind the handsome, well-preserved face, Brady remains a cipher.
There are those who have branded him as a Trump zealot, because of the presence of a MAGA hat in his locker back in 2015. But that doesn’t explain Brady’s going out of his way to never be photographed anywhere near Trump over the past six years. He also didn’t show up to two separate White House Super Bowl celebrations. That meant defying not only Trump but Trump’s pal in putrescence Patriots franchise owner Bob Kraft. It almost sounds principled until you learn that Brady never gave a reason beyond family concerns for missing both events.
He has never said an ill word about Trump, choosing to be “neutral” during an era when Trump used the NFL as his own personal punching bag. Brady did speak out in support of exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but only after a ton of players had done so first. It was an easy lift.
Brady has gone out of his way to offend as few people as possible in this era of polarization, because Brady is all about his brand. He is more brand than man. His brand is what he loves and protects above all else.
There are other all-time great athletes of recent vintage who fall into this category, people whose sense of themselves is tied up more in marketability and winning than in politics or principle. It’s rare air that includes leviathans like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The difference between Brady and his two compatriots is that Jordan and Tiger are Black. Brady’s whiteness prevents any kind of interrogation—the kind Jordan and Woods have endured throughout their careers—about whether he should be doing more with his platform, something more than just playing football and being Brady.
This absence of interrogation has allowed Brady to slalom from scandal to scandal over the last 20 years without any attendant fear about what his actions could mean to society or “the children.” There have been more “gates” than a wealthy community in Florida. Videogate or Deflategate could have felled lesser talents, and a Black athlete in a similar pickle would unquestionably have been canceled.
There is Brady’s bizarre personal physician, an alternative medicine practitioner named Alex Guerrero, someone whom Brady’s coach in New England, Bill Belichick, threw out of the team facilities for murky unknown reasons. And in what may have been Brady’s most disturbing act, he has advocated that the talented and toxic Antonio Brown play first in New England and now in Tampa Bay. The accusations against Brown of violence against women are so repugnant, it’s altogether probable that without Brady’s imprimatur, there is no way Brown would find his way back into the National Football League. Normally Brady affects the Bogart line of “sticking his neck out for nobody,” yet he has treated Brown like he’s behind enemy lines in Vichy France. Receivers like Brown have the capacity to extend the careers of people like Brady, and that’s the only moral calculus on display.
As David Leonard wrote so prophetically in 2015, “Tom Brady demonstrates the unflinching power of whiteness in contemporary America. Black people are punished and demonized for cheating. White men like Tom Brady get to do all sorts of shit for a competitive edge and they are gaming the system.”
The truth of the matter is that Brady isn’t a crypto-fascist, and he isn’t a saint. He is actually kind of simple. He doesn’t speak out about politics because he doesn’t know anything about politics. He had a Donald Trump hat because Trump was a rich guy on the golf course who was always quick with a scatological joke. It’s his unimaginable privilege that allows him to not have to care that Trump is a racist or an authoritarian. When he found out that others weren’t thrilled, that hat entered the witness protection program and hasn’t been seen since.
He is a part of so many scandals that are about getting an edge on opponents or Father Time because he understands that his brand is inextricably tied to his reputation as the greatest winner in NFL history. He understands with a laser-like intensity that in the 21st century, people don’t necessarily care how you win, only that you emerge victorious. And his whiteness is a “get out of jail free” card in the face of every reporter who has questioned his priorities or morals. Because in the end, Tom Brady isn’t asked to carry the weight of any community beyond the one in his manse. He only needs to be accountable to one person, and that’s “brand Tom Brady.” Good luck telling the difference between brand and man.