SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour asks Tom Brady if he thinks Black athletes have an equal amount of leeway when broaching political and controversial topics as white athletes do.
Tom Brady was happy to talk politics until he wasn’t.
The Make America Great Again hat in his locker, the flippant endorsement of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Only when those ties became inconvenient did Brady decide he wanted to “stick to sports,” and that he preferred to be a beacon of positivity rather than delve into society’s thorny ills.
How mighty white of him.
Brady’s ability to enter and exit the debate at his choosing, to shield himself from accountability, is the height of white privilege. As this country grapples with the far reaches of systemic racism, look no further than Brady, for whom the expectations, and allowances granted, will always be different.
“Whiteness is the benefit of the doubt,” said David Leonard, author of “Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field.” “When Tom Brady says, ‘I was just given the hat,’ or ‘He’s just a friend of mine,’ or when he skips the White House and says, ‘I had a different engagement,’ he gets the benefit of the doubt. He gets to be an individual.
Why has Tom Brady mostly avoided criticism for his political views while athletes of color often are not? (Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)
“He reaps the benefits that we as white Americans reap each and every day in different contexts.”
It’s been five years since a MAGA hat had prime placement in Brady’s locker and he replied “I hope so, that would be great” when asked if his old golfing buddy had what it took to be president. But with Brady playing in his 10th Super Bowl on Sunday, when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the Kansas City Chiefs, the topic was raised anew by Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who said last week that no Black athlete would have gotten the pass Brady has.
“LeBron James can never say, a prominent Black athlete can never say, ‘Minister Farrakhan is just my friend.’ They’d try to cancel anybody with the just mere mention of Mister Farrakhan’s name,” Sharpe said on “Undisputed,” the show he co-hosts on FS1, referring to Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic and homophobic leader of the Nation of Islam.
OLD AND OLDERS: Tom Brady is old, but former Bucs, Chiefs QB Steve DeBerg was older. For now
TOM BRADY’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 12 of TB12’s most memorable moments and records
Sharpe is right.
In theory, it should not matter whether Brady supports Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or someone somewhere in between on the political spectrum. He has a right to his private views.
But it was Brady himself who chose to make those private views public. If you think that MAGA hat just happened to wind up in his locker – at camera level, not buried at the bottom beneath a pile of cleats and clothes – I have a case of TB12 supplements to sell you. Brady has carefully cultivated his image over his 21-year career, whether it be his style or his social media posts, and he knew just what kind of reaction he would get.
Now, he might not have thought it would matter, since Trump’s candidacy at that point was still seen as something of a stunt. But Brady has had the chance – several, in fact – to clarify or walk back his comments and has chosen not to. At the Super Bowl in 2017, three days after Trump’s Muslim ban took effect. On Howard Stern’s show last spring, when Trump was already beginning to sow lies about the election.
And yet again this week, less than a month after a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that was incited by Trump.
Instead, Brady has been allowed to divorce himself from it while Black athletes are made to own their views in perpetuity.
There is no end in sight to Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing, even though his protests to bring attention to police brutality of Black and brown people have proven to be an alarm we should not have ignored. WNBA players had one of their own owners turn on them because they had the audacity to say “Black Lives Matter” and amplify the stories of Black and brown women killed by police.
“I’m not sure how to respond to hypothetical questions like that,” Brady said Monday when asked if he feels he’s gotten a pass. “I hope everyone can – we’re in this position, like I am, to try to be the best I can be everyday as an athlete, as a player, as a person in my community for my team and so forth.
“So … yeah. Not sure what else.”
Even Brady’s aversion to talking about politics or current events is itself a form of privilege.
Like other white athletes, Brady is seen as an individual in a way minority athletes never are. Because Megan Rapinoe is openly gay, she is always going to be asked to weigh in on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. Black and brown athletes are expected to have – and share – their opinions and experiences about racial injustice and discrimination.
Patrick Mahomes was asked at last year’s Super Bowl about being biracial. This year he’s been asked about speaking out in the wake of George Floyd, the Black man whose death at the knee of a white police officer sparked protests across the country.
Yet no one has asked Brady about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, even though almost all of those who attempted the violent overthrow of our government were white, just as he is, and were incited by the man Brady has described as his friend.
“Tom Brady is speaking up as Tom Brady. He’s not asked to speak for white America,” said Leonard, who is also a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies and culture at Washington State.
“The follow-up question of, ‘I’m here just to play football,’ is ‘Well, who’s afforded that luxury? Who’s allowed to see sports as this apolitical space of distraction, of pleasure, of fun?’ ” Leonard said. “Seeing sports and living sports as an uncontested space is the privilege of whiteness. It’s the privilege of being a man. It’s the privilege of being a heterosexual athlete.
“That is a luxury that Black athletes and other marginalized and disempowered athletes have never been afforded, inside and outside of sports.”
It might seem petty to bring up Brady’s moral cowardice now, when the 43-year-old is accomplishing things unlikely to ever be seen again in the NFL. But celebrating what he’s done while turning a blind eye to what he has not is a privilege Brady does not deserve.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.