Sports

How to Root for the Patriots in the Age of Trump

A guide for morally compromised New England fans.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
Jonathan Wiggs/the Boston Globe via Getty Images

Back in 2017, just days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I wrote a piece for Slate, which you can read in full below, making a tortured case for how a left-leaning Masshole like myself could justify rooting for the New England Patriots, particularly given that owner Bob Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady all seemed to support President Donald Trump in various ways. The Patriots won that game in overtime after trailing 28–3 in the second half, a comeback that allowed New Englanders to achieve levels of insufferable self-importance unapproached since the late 1700s.

Now that the Patriots have made their third Super Bowl in a row (and their ninth since 2002), I have been tasked with updating that post. Trust me, I don’t want to be here any more than you do (OK, maybe just a little bit more). Just two weeks ago, a sizable part of me was hoping the Chiefs would give the Pats a noble defeat in the AFC Championship Game, allowing me to skip the Super Bowl for the first time since I was a small child. I would read a book, I told myself, or catch up on the adventures of the True Detectives. But as Al Pacino says in what is appropriately the only bad Godfather film, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Anyway, most of what I wrote below back in 2017 still stands. I particularly stand behind my last point, that there is a righteousness in rooting for the Patriots because their success is bad for the NFL, and anything that is bad for the NFL is by definition good. But there’s also a case to be made that the Patriots should be more of a fan favorite this time around.

In 2017, rooting against the Pats meant rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, a team that’s never won a Super Bowl in 50-plus years and boasts many of the traditional attributes of a sports team, like fans and a stadium. In 2019, rooting against the Pats means rooting for the Los Angeles Rams, the football equivalent of Amazon HQ2. While they wait for their own stadium to be built, the Rams play their home games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before crowds of people who can’t remember what day USC plays. They have been playing there since 2016 (!), prior to which they spent 21 seasons as the St. Louis Rams, where they were the emotional property of a fan base that loved them fiercely only to be stabbed in the back and kicked in the stomach by owner Stan Kroenke. (Yes, the Rams were in L.A. before that, but they played in Anaheim and usually sucked. They’ll always be the St. Louis Rams to me.)

As for Trump, the president has already suffered some fun humiliations lately, with Nancy Pelosi and the American airline industry handling him like Belichick used to handle Peyton Manning. I also don’t think it’s right to worry that Trump will take vicarious joy from the Patriots winning the Super Bowl, because I don’t think he has the capacity to vicariously feel anything. And come on, do you really think Tom Brady’s going to go to the White House and eat McDonald’s? Go Pats.

Note: The following is a reprint of Jack Hamilton’s Feb. 3, 2017, piece, “How to Pull for the Patriots in the Age of Trump.”

It gets harder and harder every time. By virtue of having grown up in the greater Boston area, I am a fan of the New England Patriots, perhaps the most successful and most widely loathed sports franchise of the 21st century. For much of my childhood and young adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s, this was a laughable identity—the Patriots mostly vacillated between mediocre and terrible, their two pre-millennial Super Bowl appearances resulting in blowout defeats. This all changed in 2002, when the Pats, under second-year head coach Bill Belichick and first-year starting quarterback Tom Brady, beat the seemingly unbeatable St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. They won two more titles in 2004 and 2005, improbably establishing themselves as the gold standard of the league, and their coach and QB as gridiron geniuses. In the years since, the Patriots have appeared in three more Super Bowls (four come Sunday) and won one more title in 2015, all while relentlessly building a reputation as the league’s foremost heels, a franchise whose devotion to winning has led it to cheating scandals both real and inflated.

That last bit has made it increasingly difficult to be a supporter of this team from a moral and spiritual standpoint, but this year my Pats fan self-hatred shot into the stratosphere with Brady, Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft playing public games of footsie with Donald Trump, the most objectionable presidential candidate of my lifetime. While all three stopped short of endorsing his candidacy, their inexplicable flirtations with Trump have made the team into a symbol for all he represents: In 2016, the Patriots moved from being deplorable to being Deplorable. I didn’t watch most of the regular season out of a combination of apathy and aversion, but as the playoffs rolled around, I once again got sucked in, and against nearly all of my better judgment I’ll be watching them and rooting for them again on Sunday. This has required a considerable amount of psychic gymnastics, so below is my helpful list of tortuous rationalizations for morally compromised Patriots fans who’ll be pulling for that fifth trophy this Sunday night:

Maybe Brady and Belichick didn’t actually vote for Trump. Look, I saw the #MAGA hat in Brady’s locker just like everyone else and have followed his mealy-mouthed nondenials of support for his thick orange friend. I’m not confident that Brady voted for Hillary Clinton; he grew up in a devout Catholic household with a father who attended seminary for seven years, he attended one of George W. Bush’s State of the Union addresses, and he curiously skipped a 2015 White House visit in order to shop for an Apple Watch. I’m just not sure he voted for Trump, either. Tom Brady is a world-class weirdo who seems focused on three things: his family, his own body, and his football team, in disturbingly ambiguous order. Read this Mark Leibovich profile of Brady from two years ago and tell me if this sounds like a guy who votes. And even if Brady did vote for Trump, good Lord, if I watched sports because I supported the political views of the players, I probably wouldn’t watch sports.

As for Belichick, it’s long been rumored that he’s a Democrat, and I’m resistant to the idea that there’s a single Wesleyan grad in America who pulled the lever for Trump, even one as illustriously dyspeptic as Belichick. It also just doesn’t fit his personality: Belichick is detail-obsessed, myopically focused, pathologically spotlight-averse. None of this screams affinity with our current resident of the White House. So whither the letter? Days before the election Trump read aloud a letter of “support” from Belichick (which stopped short of endorsing his candidacy) at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. My working theory is that Belichick was prodded into his pro-Trump statement by Pats owner Robert Kraft, one of Trump’s most prominent friends in the sports community. If true this is horrific, but pro sports owners are a horrific bunch, and even if Kraft voted for Trump (he, too, has been close-lipped on the matter, and has a history of supporting candidates from both sides of the aisle), he at least hasn’t been tapped for a post in his administration, as Todd Ricketts (Chicago Cubs), Betsy DeVos (Orlando Magic), and Woody Johnson (New York Jets) have.

Trump may love the Patriots, but the vast majority of Trump supporters will be rooting for the Falcons on Sunday. Fine, in fairness, the vast majority of Hillary Clinton supporters will be rooting for the Falcons on Sunday, too—hating the Patriots is perhaps the last truly bipartisan pastime in America. But the average Trump supporter, with his hatred of coastal elites and preoccupation with law and order, likely despises the Patriots with particular intensity, for their extremely coastal and extremely elite (again—Wesleyan) and distinctly cheater-ly approach to their sport.

What’s more, it’s a taken-for-granted truism that the only people in America who root for the Patriots are residents of the six New England states, where Trump was soundly defeated. In Massachusetts, Clinton beat Trump by a whopping 27 percentage points. So not only is there a high probability that the typical Trump supporter hates the Patriots, there are an awful lot of Patriots supporters who hate Trump, too. Even if we take Belichick’s letter and Brady’s stupid hat as “endorsements” there’s no evidence that they moved the electoral needle for Trump. There’s also a decent chance a lot of the Patriots themselves hate Trump: Earlier this week the team’s tight end, Martellus Bennett, one of the NFL’s most interesting and magnetic humans, announced that he’d likely decline a White House invitation were the Patriots to win a Super Bowl.

To root for the Patriots is to root against the NFL and its commissioner, who desperately wants the Patriots to lose. This is my main and perhaps only completely earnest rationalization for supporting the Patriots this Sunday. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a distinctly Trumpian figure: the self-aggrandizing obsession with law and order, the worshipful attachment to billionaires and their presumed inherent virtues. Like Trump, Goodell is the son of a powerful and more impressive father who was born on third base and has mostly failed upward from there. (Trump himself, in a stunning combination of pot-kettle and correct-stopped-clock, has characterized Goodell as “a weak guy,” “a dope,” and “a stupid guy.”)

The league that Goodell represents is a cesspool for corporate oligarchy and the patriotism of scoundrels. It treats human bodies as disposable and has the worst labor conditions of any major professional sport, despite being the most lucrative. Earlier this season, when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the decision to simply not stand for the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality, hordes of fans organized a “#BoycottNFL” movement under the asinine logic that Kaepernick’s protest was disrespectful to the U.S. military (incidentally, one of the NFL’s corporate partners). Then-nominee Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick leave the country. When the NFL’s ratings dropped, Goodell issued a cursory defense of Kaepernick’s right to free expression that the commish carefully drowned out in dog whistles, including this incredible passage: “I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. We live in an imperfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.” Whatever “patriotism” is extolled in this passage is pretty disgusting.

Goodell and the Patriots despise each other, as the yearslong cycle of suspensions, challenges, appeals, and resuspensions has driven home. (Brady missed the first four games of this season as punishment for Deflategate, nearly two full years after the alleged malfeasance had occurred.) Goodell hasn’t attended a game at Gillette Stadium since before the controversy, a startling absence considering the Patriots are, ends-wise if not means-wise, his league’s banner franchise. As ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham reported back in 2015, from the start Deflategate was taken up by Goodell and his billionaire bosses as a clunky vehicle for a quixotic revenge quest for the commissioner’s own bungling of the Patriots’ “Spygate” misdeeds of 2007. To watch Goodell forced to share a podium with Belichick and Brady this Sunday, handing over a fifth Lombardi Trophy that would solidify the 21st-century Pats as the greatest sustained dynasty the NFL has ever seen, would be like watching Trump in a weight-lifting competition with Arnold Schwarzenegger—you might not be actually rooting for either, but you’re sure savoring the certain embarrassment of one of the parties.

I’ve often said that rooting for the Patriots feels like rooting for the Joker in a Christopher Nolan Batman film—they’re psychotically single-minded, amoral, gallingly narcissistic, purveyors of opportunistic, meticulous chaos. But what if the Joker is right? What if Gotham is irredeemable and Batman is even worse? I’m just about done with the NFL and everything it stands for, and an increasingly large part of me hopes I’m too good to ever watch another professional football game after this one. But I’m not too good to want to go out on top.