Setting aside football franchises named after racial slurs, the New England Patriots are my least favorite team in sports. It’s their annual dominance—now, in 2018, it will be eight Super Bowl appearances in 17 years—as predictively monotonous as a metronome. It’s their Hall of Fame head coach, the joyless hooded gnome Bill Belichick. It’s 40-year-old dreamboat quarterback Tom Brady and his carnival-huckster approach to physical health—for $99.99 you, too, can get the Brady pajamas with “bioceramic particles woven in to reflect back to the body infrared waves.” It’s the way referees seem to love them just a little bit too much for comfort.
The list is long, and I know I’m not alone in my disgust. Many have taken our resentment against this team and politicized it, saying in effect that a cheer for the Patriots is a cheer for the Trump agenda. They are viewed as Team Trump because their owner Bob Kraft gave a million bucks to Trump’s inauguration committee and has long touted their friendship. It’s because Belichick wrote a letter of support to Trump that Donald read aloud—almost certainly without Belichick’s approval—where he said, “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing.”
It’s the “Make America Great Again” hat hanging in Tom Brady’s locker in the summer of 2016 and Brady asking plaintively, “Why is that such a big deal?”
For people defending the franchise against these Team Trump charges, it also hasn’t helped that Nazi leaders have said that the Pats are their favorites because they are “consistently NFL’s whitest team.” (That’s not actually true, but facts have never stopped Nazis before.)
Yet I want to make the counter-argument to this. First and foremost, the idea that a team is somehow progressive or reactionary is absurd. Teams are products to be sold, not political totems. There are historical exceptions to this, but they are rare. When the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson won, it mattered because it smashed a hole through the pervasive, everyday white supremacy of the time. The same was true with the Celtics, when led by player-coach Bill Russell, or in 1989 when Art Shell of the Raiders was hired as the first black head coach in the NFL since the 1920s. When Colin Kaepernick was throwing for 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2016, while also protesting police violence and being inundated with death threats, it mattered. Again, these are rare occurrences.
Most teams instead—no matter how many players they have taking a knee—are a mess of political contradictions. Yes, Bob Kraft is a bankroller of Trump, but he’s hardly alone, in NFL ownership ranks or among the billionaire class. Yes, he is also a close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, donating millions to building a football stadium in Jerusalem. Again, these actions, while noxious, are hardly exceptional, as the NFL broadly has tried to foster a relationship with Netanyahu for years, and no amount of human-rights violations have deterred them.