It seems like 20 years ago, but do you remember what President Trump was doing the night before Election Day back in 2016? He was in Manchester, New Hampshire, reading a letter that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick had written him. The note (which Belichick later admitted to authoring even though it contained extremely Trumpian language like “you have dealt with an unbelievably slanted and negative media and have come out beautifully” and “your leadership is amazing”) was meant, according to Trump, to sway Patriots fans in the Granite State to vote for him. (It didn’t work, but the results were close: Hillary Clinton won there by only 0.4 percentage points.) The sports world was aware that Tom Brady had an association with Trump — he’d kept a Make America Great Again hat in his locker, and Trump claimed in that same rally that Brady had called him that day to tell him he’d voted for him, something Brady’s camp later denied — but the devotion from Belichick, probably the greatest football coach of all time, had been previously unknown. As was the fact that the famously rumpled Belichick was even capable of using the word “beautifully.”
So it seems fitting that the story of Trump’s presidency came around, full circle, to Belichick at the end. After the horrific and deadly insurrection at the Capitol building on Wednesday, most (but not all) political allies, longtime supporters, and corporate benefactors are scrambling to get as far away from Trump as possible. In the midst of the great distancing, the Trump administration announced Sunday that the president would award Belichick the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday. The news reportedly came as a surprise to everyone involved with Belichick and the Patriots. It was perhaps not a surprise that Belichick said thanks, but no thanks, a day later — albeit with a vague, confusing statement that is an eternal testament to the perils of the passive voice. Regardless, Belichick had to wonder: Of all the weeks for this to happen, you picked this one?
Donald Trump has long been inextricably connected to the sports world, not just because he has spent decades owning private golf resorts and running boxing promotions, but because of his eternal obsession with celebrity — particularly the crass, often doltish sort of celebrity that comes from competitive athletics of both the real and ersatz variety. (The guy’s a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, for crying out loud.) But as his world collapsed around him this past week, it has been telling how quickly his usual compatriots in the sports world have run screaming for the exits, just like their political counterparts.
The most high-profile defection was from the PGA, which announced Sunday that it would pull its PGA Championship from Trump’s Bedminster golf club in New Jersey next year. If you don’t pay much attention to the sport, you should know that this is actually a pretty big deal. (And Trump was reportedly more upset about losing the tournament than he was about being impeached again.) The PGA Championship is a men’s major tournament, by far the highest-profile event any Trump club would have ever hosted, and it is awarded years in advance. (It’s currently booked through 2034, when it’s supposed to take place in Frisco, Texas.) Bedminster was awarded the tournament in 2014, which, well, is obviously from the before time. Pulling out of a tournament just a year before it happens is a logistical nightmare and speaks volumes about how desperate the PGA is to get away from Trump.
NFL owners are reportedly almost all supporters of the president, but there has been silence from all of them since Wednesday. (Many NFL players, particularly Black players, have been much more vocal.) The only vocal Trump defenders have been those who have followed him down the postelection rabbit hole, like former Heisman Trophy winner and beloved Georgia football player Herschel Walker (who on Twitter appeared to imply the attack on the Capitol was staged by Antifa) and World Series hero turned conspiracy theorist Curt Schilling, recently seen arguing that Joe Biden and his staff should be “sent to Gitmo.” Both men have long been cast out of any sort of position of power or influence in their sports; Schilling’s growing insanity is likely to cost him an otherwise-deserving spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In terms of public displays in the sports world, they are all that Trump has left.
As I wrote in August, when it looked like Trump was helplessly behind in the polls, sports stars and leagues have been backing away for a while. The NFL no longer feared him; even NASCAR was openly defying him. Trump got his fair share of athlete (or retired athlete, anyway) endorsements before Election Day, from Brett Favre to George Brett to Jack Nicklaus, but they’ve all been noticeably quiet over the last two months. If they are still supportive of the President now, in the final stages, they’d rather not anyone know about it.
Which is the question for anyone in sports, or, really, anyone anywhere: How much of the Trump stink will stick to them? It’s a bit random how these things shake out. Tom Brady has long been connected to Trump, but that hat was in his locker only during the early days of the Trump candidacy, when people who were only barely paying attention (like Brady) found Trump’s candidacy a goofball novelty rather than a legitimate, looming threat. He has spent the five years since keeping as much distance as he could from the president. (The one time the Patriots visited the Trump White House after winning the Super Bowl, Brady notably skipped the trip, much to Trump’s annoyance.) But that’s not going to save Brady: He’ll be known as a Trump supporter forever, if just because it’s fun for people to hate Tom Brady and this is just one more reason, real or otherwise.
Though Belichick’s friendship with Trump has been much closer than Brady’s ever was, he had mostly avoided the quarterback’s fate until the Medal of Freedom news. How close? Belichick reportedly talked so much to the president that it irritated Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly, who reportedly “marveled that Mr. Trump had spent a long time the day before on the phone with [Belichick] talking about the status of Tom Brady.” But Belichick, when he has talked publicly, certainly hasn’t sounded anything like Curt Schilling. Here is his response to the NFL’s social-justice movement of the last year, at his final press conference last month:
Maybe Belichick believed all that, or maybe he was just saying it to appease his players, but it’s certainly not Trumpian language. The world of sports is, more than anything, a world of corporations, and corporations, like many Americans, are terrified of having anything to do with the president anymore. The bad news for Belichick is that turning down Trump’s offer may not buy him any goodwill anyway. It’s easier for the corporate world, after all, to pretend its past support of Trump didn’t happen: Average people don’t really know or care who runs those places. But they know Tom Brady and they know Bill Belichick. (And they know Herschel Walker and Curt Schilling.) After this unforgettable past week, it’s also going to be hard to forget how these giants of the game decided to associate themselves with someone like Trump.