Saturday 20 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: Failure to throw political football leaves All-American hero out of bounds

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Photo: Getty Images
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Photo: Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

Tom Brady was blanked by President Trump at the White House on Wednesday and he wasn't even there.

He was blanked precisely because he wasn't there. The superstar of American football, arguably the greatest quarterback ever, didn't turn up for the meet-and-greet that is a ritual perk for Super Bowl champions.

Trump was inaugurated on January 20. The New England Patriots won the title on February 5. Speculation simmered in the days after: would all of the playing roster, in particular its non-white members, turn up for a visit that might be seen to endorse such a divisive president? In the febrile climate wrought by his campaign and subsequent election, even a traditional feel-good photo opportunity had become politicised.

Some players flat-out refused the invitation. "I just don't feel welcome in that house," declared LeGarrette Blount. Devin McCourty said that because of Trump's "strong opinions and prejudices", he didn't "feel accepted in the White House." Alan Branch said he would not attend because of Trump's infamously sexist track record. "I have three daughters," he explained to The Boston Globe, "I wouldn't spend time away from my family to shake the hand of a guy I wouldn't want to meet with or talk to."

In the end, only 34 players turned up. The Patriots also won the Super Bowl in 2015; 50 players turned up to meet President Obama. Tom Brady was absent on that occasion too. He'd turned up for three previous victory ceremonies, when George W Bush was president.

Brady has a platinum brand to protect and therefore abhors any scintilla of political controversy. He cited family commitments as a reason for missing the Obama jolly two years ago. But it stoked a widespread assumption that he is a supporter of the Republican party. This was only reinforced a few months later when reporters spotted in his locker a red baseball hat bearing the slogan that would soon become ubiquitous: Make America Great Again. Yep, Tom was a Donald man.

But he was already in trouble among swathes of the American public for his part in the ball-tampering controversy that became known as 'Deflategate'. Now he was seen to be endorsing a candidate viewed by millions as an odious buffoon.

This was not good at all for Brand Brady. He tried to distance himself from politics thereafter, recoiling from any further comment during the subsequent long and bitter race for the White House. His absence on Wednesday was seen as a continuation of this strategy. Just as Michael Jordan sold Nike shoes by the container load, Brady sells Ugg slippers as part of his corporate portfolio. And just as Jordan justified his apolitical profile by reputedly saying that "Republicans wear sneakers too", Brady is presumably well aware that Democrats buy Uggs too.

His dilemma was perhaps complicated by the public stance of his wife, Gisele Bündchen. Asked on social media in November if she'd be voting for Trump, the supermodel replied in capitals: "NO!" And while the Patriots were actually sauntering around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she tweeted an invitation of her own, to a climate change rally in Washington DC on April 29. Given that the president is hostile to the environmental movement, Bündchen's tweet was seen as deliberately impudent both in timing and content.

All in all, it was an awkward day for Tom. And he of course was a major reason why the Patriots were there in the first place. Back in February they'd beaten the Atlanta Falcons in the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime. Trailing 28-3 in the third quarter, it was the largest deficit ever overcome in Super Bowl history. Brady broke new records for a quarterback by winning his fourth MVP award and his fifth Super Bowl title.

On Wednesday morning, he released a statement explaining that he would not be able to attend because of "personal family matters". Not too many observers were buying this excuse, least of all the Trumpster. In his welcoming spiel on the South Lawn he singled out a number of players for their performances in the Super Bowl. But there was no mention of the main man, despite his legendary feats against Atlanta. In Trump's world there is only one main man.

In the absence of their superstar, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick made strenuous efforts to soothe the presidential ego. The owner and head coach respectively of the New England Patriots were suitably sycophantic, presenting him with a team helmet to protect the presidential toupee, should he need it. Meanwhile, Rob 'Gronk' Gronkowski gate-crashed the daily media briefing of White House press secretary Sean Spicer. The Patriots star is the living embodiment of the stereotypical American sports jock: brilliant but vacant, muscles everywhere except between his ears. Famous for partying like a one-man Led Zeppelin, he is popular because he makes no secret of his love for beer, night clubs and pretty girls. Or, to quote the great goofball himself, "Chicks as hot as crocodiles."

Spicer is soberly addressing the media when a side door opens. He looks around to see the big lummock looking back at him as the hacks dissolve into laughter. "Need some help?" asks Gronk. "Eh, I think I got this," replies Trump's normally embattled propagandist, "but thank you."

For once it wasn't Spicer who needed the spin but Tom Brady, the quintessential All-American who otherwise always turns up.

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