Tom Brady is not a gladiator. He undeniably shares many of their defining traits; Brady is a fierce competitor, a compelling entertainer, and a superhuman athlete. But despite his own best efforts to reframe reality, he is not a gladiator.
In ancient Rome, the Empire famously used the gladiatorial games as a means of distracting citizens from political strife. With poverty running rampant and warfare constantly on the horizon, the games proved to be an effective form of an escapism from the increasingly grim reality of Roman life. From this system of pacification and distraction sprung the phrase “bread and circuses,” which is used today as a term for superficial but effective conciliation tactics.
In modern America, football has typically been labeled as the sport that best fits the bread and circuses mold. The parallels between the National Football League (NFL) and the gladiatorial games are indiscreet; fans pledge their allegiance to one competitor or the other and then watch as the sides violently unleash their testosterone on one another in an admittedly captivating combat that puts the well-being of both parties at risk. Other popular American sports, even those that are less stylistically similar to ancient Roman games, are also frequently cast as playing this escapist role.
Yet every day, the reality of American sports gravitates further from the bread and circuses mentality. In the aftermath of their historic Super Bowl LI victory, six of Brady’s Patriot teammates have announced that they will not join the team on its visit to the White House later this year. The trip, which has been a tradition for Super Bowl winners since 1980, has been declined by very few players and certainly never as many as six in a year. Yet in 2017, the stakes have changed. When the “reward” is a chance to meet an administration and President that rose to power via rhetoric and policy proposals that poses an imminent threat to the health and safety of nonwhite communities (among many other communities), it should come as no surprise that players like Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount are less than enthused.
“I will not,” said Blount when asked if he would be joining the team in Washington. “I just don’t feel welcome into that house. I’ll leave it at that.”
Brady, meanwhile, affirmed his plans to visit Trump and continued to insist that the choice was outside of the political sphere.
“It really is a great experience,” said Brady. “Putting politics aside, it never was a political thing. At least, it never was to me. It meant you won a championship and you got to experience something cool with your team, with your teammates.”
Throughout the 2016 election cycle, Brady stayed silent on his political preferences, although he has been public about his friendship with Trump and was once spotted with a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker. Brady claims that he is choosing to stay out of the realm of politics entirely. He’s wrong. His silence screams that he’s both too privileged to need to worry about the effects of a Trump administration on his own life and too indifferent about the lives of his teammates (people of color make up 72% of the NFL) to speak out for them. Of course, his attitude also ignores the millions of Americans outside of his immediate circle whose lives will be irreversibly damaged by Trump’s presidency.
No matter how many times he tries to brand himself as an apolitical being, Brady cannot alter reality. He has a microphone, and he has a choice on how to use it, but making the choice to put it down is still a political one. Therefore, Brady can never fulfill his gladiatorial fantasies. In 2017, athletes simply cannot be one-dimensional competitors, and sports can no longer be a bread and circuses activity. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, explained this past weekend why Brady’s attempt at impartiality is a problem.
“It just so happens we get these microphones stuck in our face and we have a bigger platform,” said Kerr. “But it’s free speech and, if you look at the history of the world, the biggest problems come when people don’t speak.”
When NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Draymond Green came out last week in support of the flat-earth theory—which is ludicrous, dangerous, and provably false—the sporting world replied with a chorus of “stick to basketball.” As condemnable as their beliefs are, this response misses the mark. The opinion leaders of the NBA should, instead, use their mics for good. If LeBron James and the league’s other activists simply “stuck to basketball,” the NBA’s significant contributions to the causes of racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and more (if more in words than in action) would have been erased. Athletes will sometimes use their platforms to promote harmful ideas, and that is okay; but their peers must have the bravery to respond and condemn.
So, Patriots fans: think carefully before defending the faces of your team. Brady, Robert Kraft, and Bill Belichick have clear ties to Trump, and their political silence is simply inadequate grounds to excuse those ties. Even if Brady hadn’t made his respect for the President clear, his apoliticism is unrealistic and unacceptable in such a high-stakes climate. So while he may be the perfect gridiron gladiator, the real-life Brady shrinks behind a microphone in a manner much more fit for the circus than the coliseum.