As anyone who has heard my cracker drawl could guess, I’m from Georgia, and have spent over half my life in and around Atlanta. Not being much of an NFL fan (my passion is college football), I had no more than a mild rooting interest in the Falcons as they made the playoffs and then kept on winning.
But now that they are facing the New England Patriots in the fifty-first Super Bowl (I stubbornly refuse to use the pretentious Roman numerals), it’s hard to ignore the fact that this game is developing political undertones, or maybe overtones.
The Pats have an unholy trinity of conspicuous associations with the 45th president of the United States. Owner Robert Kraft calls Donald Trump “a very close friend of mine for over two decades.” Coach Bill Belichick, another self-identified “good friend” of Trump, sent him a fawning letter that the candidate read aloud on the eve of his victory in the 2016 New Hampshire Republican primary. And most of all, star QB Tom Brady is identified with Team Trump, as reflected in this 2015 testimonial for the mogul:
For the last 15 years, since I judged a beauty pageant for him, which was one of the very first things that I did that I thought was really cool that came along with winning the Super Bowl. He’s always invited me to play golf and I’ve always enjoyed his company. I support all my friends in everything they do.
And Trump has reciprocated to an extent that is sometimes, well, a tad creepy, beginning with that 2002 beauty pageant:
According to a Sports Illustrated cover story that year, Trump flew Brady out to Gary, Indiana, on his gold-plated private jet to judge the spectacle.
“If one thing stands out about Tom Brady, it’s that he loves those women,” Trump told SI. “And guess what? They love him, too.” Trump later confessed to Howard Stern how he’d tried to set up his own daughter, Ivanka, with Brady at the pageant. “I think Tom’s a great guy, and I think he and Ivanka would make a great combination,” Trump reiterated in a 2004 interview with Playboy.
Now, rich, white professional-football-team owners, coaches, and star QBs tend to be pretty conservative, so we probably shouldn’t hold such views against the entire franchise, particularly when it represents a region that gave Donald Trump the princely sum of a single electoral vote (from Maine’s rural second congressional district, which awards its vote independently of the state as a whole).
But there is another thing that has politicized Super Bowl Fifty-One: Trump’s gratuitous attacks on the city of Atlanta and its civil-rights-icon congressman, John Lewis. When Lewis said he would boycott Trump’s inauguration, the president-elect cut loose on Twitter, and fired not just at the man who was nearly killed in the struggle for voting rights, but at his congressional district, which encompasses most of the city of Atlanta:
As Atlanta-based sportswriter Jason Kirk observed, these tweets slandered Atlanta in multiple ways:
Atlanta didn’t rank among the 10 most violent cities of 100,000 or more people in 2016, according to the FBI’s early numbers. Also didn’t in 2015, 2014, and so on. It does rank in the top 10 in GDP, though.
The 5th [Congressional] District has places you can’t afford to live and places you’d prefer not to live, and everything in between. Its unemployment rate, median home value, high school graduation rate, and median household income are comparable to plenty of other big cities.
And my favorite:
Congressional representatives are, uh, actually not in charge of local governance anyway. You’d think the president would know that.
There’s another thing that ties the Patriots to Trump and the Falcons to Lewis: popularity. As a recent survey from Public Policy Polling shows, the Pats are even more disliked nationally than is Trump:
We find that among football fans nationwide, 53% are rooting for the Falcons to win on Sunday, compared to only 27% who are pulling for the Patriots. Republicans (58/23), Democrats (54/27), and independents (47/31) all give their support to the Falcons in pretty similar numbers. The Falcons have a very positive overall image as a team — 55% of fans see them favorably to 19% with an unfavorable view. Meanwhile attitudes toward the Patriots are considerably more divided, with 43% seeing them positively and 42% negatively.
So it’s reasonably clear that “the American people” who Trump acts as though he uniquely understands are going to be cheering against his team on Sunday.
But, yeah, there will be a special intensity of feeling from Atlantans near and far. Here’s how sportswriter Kirk puts it:
We’re often urged to Stick To Sports and Leave Politics Out Of This, so here’s a statement about the Super Bowl that doesn’t contain a word of politics: A rich bully told derogatory lies about my hometown, and now this town’s NFL team has a chance to beat his buddies for a championship.
With all due apologies to Patriots fans who aren’t fans of the president or really just don’t care about politics, many other Americans are going to enjoy an extra helping of schadenfreude if the Falcons win on Sunday.