On Friday, People, TMZ, and others reported that Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen would divorce after 13 years of marriage. This put Slate staff writer and frequent celebrity correspondent Heather Schwedel, who knows a normal amount about Bündchen but almost nothing about Brady, in a difficult position vis-à-vis how to cover the split. She decided to chat about the situation with a colleague whose areas of expertise are the exact reverse: Ben Richmond, Slate’s senior director of podcast operations, knows a lot about football but little about celebrities. Their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, follows.
Heather Schwedel: I’ve been dreading this day for months, Ben. Not because I’m particularly invested in Tom Brady and Gisele as a couple, but because I write a lot about celebrities for Slate, and when the news came, I was worried I was finally going to have to learn who Tom Brady is. I managed to avoid it for so long!
Ben Richmond: His status as a near total cipher is pretty amazing, especially considering how every little bit we do know about him is so profoundly weird—like the never-having-eaten-a-strawberry thing and the distrust of nightshade plants in general.
Heather: Wait, so he’s a cipher to you too? I assumed every sports fan had vast knowledge of Tom Brady.
Ben: I think you can have knowledge of (and animus toward!) Tom Brady, football entity, and still be left wondering what his actual deal is. I don’t mean this unkindly, but I sort of wonder … what else there could be, and if that’s part of what’s going on here. Every minute of every day, Tom must just be thinking about football. You don’t get to be a seven-time Super Bowl champ if you have an interest in, say, anything else.
Heather: So, to put it in terms I would understand, maybe he’s like a Jeremy Strong type?
Ben: I think even actors have to feint toward being—not “real people,” because I don’t want to exclude athletes from that, but being three-dimensional. You don’t exactly sense that from Brady.
It’s only fair to admit now that I’m a Packers fan, but I think, for good—and now mostly for bad—we have a better idea of Aaron Rodgers’ personality. Brady, apart from the occasional footage of him slamming a Microsoft tablet around, seems to keep it all closer to the vest. Like, when people spotted the MAGA hat in his locker, I wondered how much Tom Brady knows about what that means to anyone.
Heather: I think I need you to get a little bit more remedial for me. I know that he is a football player. I know that he is maybe MAGA? I know that his ex, Bridget Moynahan, was pregnant when he first got with Gisele (eek!). But what does he mean in the greater firmament of football? Who is he?
Ben: He’s the most successful football player ever. I think that’s pretty inarguable. But again, as a Packers fan, I’ve felt that he’s never really wowed me like Aaron Rodgers—or now Patrick Mahomes—can.
Heather: Would it be fair to say that Patriots fans love him, and fans of other teams hate him? Or does it go further than that? And I’ve gathered that he also left the Patriots and plays for another team now.
Ben: Ah, yeah, so he’s now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I don’t think Patriots fans have turned on him. Patriots quarterback Brady defined, like, an era and a half. He’s been SO successful for SO long—and stomped SO many people’s dreams en route to that path—and is also very handsome, so how could you not resent him just a little? But also, how could you not respect him?
Heather: Trying to synthesize what you were saying: He was not a guy who was known off the field for being a cut-up or a good hang. He was just football, football, football, and in addition, football. And that’s a big reason people didn’t like him?
Ben: He doesn’t really have a well-developed public persona. Like, even in his commercials, there’s not a “Tom Brady personality” coming through like Michael Jordan or Brett Favre enjoyed—even if those were triumphs of PR and marketing, we knew their “personalities.”
Heather: Isn’t there also something about him kissing his kids on the mouth? And other things?
Ben: A video of him smooching his son right on the lips came out after he won a Super Bowl. (I forget which one—I think that one against Atlanta. He’s won a truly obscene number.) Back, gosh, maybe a decade ago, he had a personal trainer who was a bit of snake oil salesman, and combined with a notorious competitive spirit and his own weird dietary restrictions, we all started getting an inkling that as a co-worker Brady might be a bit of a pill.
Heather: Side note: It is very interesting to me that I know who Michael Jordan is, I know who Brett Favre is, and I know who LeBron James is, and I could tell you things about all three … and all three have been in big movies. Did Tom Brady make a mistake never starring in a major motion picture?
Ben: Whoa. How has Tom Brady never starred in a movie?
Heather: Ah, he’s been in an episode of Entourage. But still!
Ben: Anyway, I think this friction with teammates happens with quarterbacks, because even if they don’t have Tom Brady longevity, successful quarterbacks eventually find themselves to be one of the oldest guys in the locker room. And guys come and go, and I wonder if they just stop bothering to get close to them as their teammates stop being their obvious peers.
Heather: It sounds like you’re not actually a total hater?
Ben: I hate him for sports reasons, not personal animus.
Heather: What are the sports reasons to hate him? Wasn’t there a cheating scandal?
Ben: Oh, Heather. So, yeah, he was caught asking the trainers not to inflate the footballs up to regulation inflation levels. And he snapped his phone to destroy evidence and served a suspension.
Then there’s the perception that Brady has gotten special treatment throughout his career. His first big playoff game was against the Raiders in the snow, and a very questionable call (which, to be fair, was the rule at the time) went Brady and the Patriots’ way. You can look it up: It’s called the Tuck Rule Game.
Heather: I’ll take your word for it. But that really fits with the sort of pretty-boy thing you were talking about earlier, as does being married to a supermodel.
Ben: And after he got injured by a low hit, they changed the rules to protect quarterbacks in the pocket more. There’s a perception that the NFL benefits from his success, so it’s had its thumb on the scale to ensure he continues to succeed.
Heather: Ben, let’s get to Gisele.
Heather: What’s been your general perception of their relationship?
Ben: In the past, she’s been perceived of as maybe TOO invested. After a rare Super Bowl loss, she publicly said his receivers need to do more, that Tom can’t do everything.
Heather: Personally, I’ve always felt bad that an international supermodel was stuck at all these freezing-cold football games. She is in the sorority of Leonardo DiCaprio exes, and while there’s a lot you can say about him, I don’t think he ever would have made her sit through a football game. I definitely feel like she became a WAG in this relationship. And “supermodel to WAG” is not an upward trajectory. You want to be like Victoria Beckham and transcend WAGdom.
Ben: Entertainers certainly have the potential for longer careers, although maybe not in the case of supermodels.
Heather: That does make me wonder what they will do next. But first: Do you think this divorce will damage his image? Or is there nothing to damage?
Ben: It’s a knock in an otherwise pretty smooth and unimpeached public face, right? Maybe it humanizes him? But I feel like that ship has sailed.
Heather: Not unimpeachable! MAGA! Bridget Moynahan!
Ben: OK, yeah, we’re building a case. I wonder if, now that athletes play so much longer, what we’re seeing is a midlife crisis.
Heather: It makes him seem like even more of a workaholic, like he would rather work than spend time with his gorgeous wife and kids, as if he doesn’t have more than enough money. I really like this LaineyGossip analysis of it.
Ben: He can’t go out and get a fancy new car—he’s already done that. But he and Aaron Rodgers (Shana Woodley’s ex, if that helps) are still in the public eye while they try to figure out who they are if they aren’t doing the thing that has defined their lives up to this point.
Ben: I was testing you.
Heather: But you are making me see that this would be kind of a tough moment for an athlete, figuring out what to do next.
Ben: He’s only 45. In any other field, he’s not reckoning with The End.
Heather: But continuing to play to the point where your wife gets fed up and leaves you only delays and makes worse the inevitable.
Ben: Unless he was home for those retired weeks (days?) and realized they had nothing in common. I’m willing to believe they’re both happy with this outcome, to be honest, until the TMZ report that tells us otherwise in lurid detail.
Heather: How do you think the average fan will take this breakup? Does he have any allegiance to Gisele?
Ben: Theoretical fan has also gone through a divorce. His heart breaks for Tom. It’s hard for me to picture him on Gisele’s side.
Heather: What do you think about the theory that Gisele is only leaving now that Tom is on a losing team?
Ben: I think Gisele has more depth than that (why do I think that?), so I’m chalking this all up to an onset of middle age. He’s always had a shirt that tells him who he is and what he should be doing. Someday he’ll wake up and put on whatever he wants. What will he wear?
Heather: Maybe he should watch a little movie called The Devil Wears Prada.
Ben: Let me ask you this: Is he Kardashian-bound?
Heather: Now I get to say: Oh, Ben.
Ben: They love dating athletes!
Heather: The only one he has a chance with is Kris.