Tom Brady grew up playing at Serra High in San Mateo, following Joe Montana. He went to University of Michigan where he had a solid if not startling career, and was drafted in the 5th round by the Patriots.
He came into the league with little fanfare, but when Drew Bledsoe was injured, Brady stepped in and never stepped away again, like Lou Gehrig following Wally Pipp.
10 Super Bowl appearances, 6 trophies already. An (almost) perfect season (broken by a loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl). A legacy of dominance as the face of the New England Patriots, who maintained a stranglehold on the league for a decade while largely avoiding controversy and seemingly a cohesive, classy team typifying the virtues of hard work and cooperation.
Even if you rooted against the Patriots, even if you hated them like you hated Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, you respected them, and you respected Tom Brady. And his story, still playing in his 40s, moving to another team and taking them to the Super Bowl at the first try, seems the perfect arc of a perfect hero.
By many reasonable standards, Tom Brady is without a doubt one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a Platonic ideal of the sporting hero as depicted in thousands of sports novels throughout the 20th century, such as Chip Hilton.
You know the type: earnest (not like Oscar Wilde’s play, but more the middle-America, jalopy-driving, helping-the-Hardy-Boys type), a leader who overcomes adversity and wins the big game against all odds. And probably also bakes a mean apple pie. The sort of star athlete we’re all told we want to be.
Tom Brady is 100% a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But then there’s Spygate and Deflategate. And then you came to learn other things, like a long-standing and ambiguous friendship and association with Donald Trump (and, yes, I admit to a bit of a West Coast liberal bias; I’m guilty of the logical fallacy: “How can you support Trump? You’re from the Bay Area.”)
Brady has done his best to avoid making Trump an issue, saying things about separating friendship and politics, and publicly disagreeing with Trump when it came to players kneeling. And it’s certainly fair for him to avoid questions about whether he supports Trump’s policies, scrambling away as if avoiding a blitzing linebacker. He’s allowed to dislike political talk.
But when you’re as prominent an athlete as Brady, you don’t have the luxury of avoiding scrutiny for topics like this, especially not after the events of January 6th. You have a platform and even if you don’t want to talk about politics or don’t choose to share an opinion because of the brand risk, people will wonder, and it complicates your status if you don’t publicly disavow Trump. Fair? I don’t know, but that’s life.
Leaving aside the question of Trump, what do Spygate and Deflategate say about Brady? If you believe in pure heroes, his legacy is tarnished forever. Those scandals don’t fit that notion of fair play, do they? Especially given the fact that Brady was suspended for four games after Deflategate.
“Everybody does it,” some people might say. If so, why were the Patriots the only ones caught? You can’t tell me that an organization as prolific and successful as the Patriots have been in all other aspects of the football world would be miles behind the rest of the league in concealing skullduggery.
Of course, who defines what’s cheating, and what’s straining every nerve and using every option to win? After all, Vizzini probably would say that the Dread Pirate Roberts cheated by developing an immunity to iocaine powder. Isn’t it all relative?
No. No, it’s not. Spygate and Deflategate were definitely cheating.
But even raising the excuse “everyone does it” raises the question: are we really all about fair play? Or do we just not want our heroes to get caught, but will forgive them if they do?
So I’m not sure I can root for Tom Brady in today’s Super Bowl. (Not that the Chiefs are necessarily better; for one thing, I want them punished for beating the 49ers last year, but more importantly, their response to Andy Reid’s son causing an accident that sent kids to the hospital was not to immediately pay for everyone’s hospital bills but to send ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Plus the whole Tyreek Hill domestic violence debacle. No, not that one. This one. And no comment on the fact I had to clarify which incident I meant.)
Athletes are more than their sports card, more than their Starting Lineup collectible figure. We need to remember that, for better or worse.
Athletes don’t necessarily want to be paragons of virtue. They want to win. And they want to earn money.
And neither of those motivations are inherently wrong.
Competitive fire is a remarkable story in and of itself. Maybe part of why Tom Brady had so much success with Tampa Bay this year is because he wanted so badly to win again and to prove he could do it away from New England, away from Spygate and Deflategate. That tenacity would certainly count as a virtue.
You apply your talents and skills, work hard, and accrue resources and rewards. That’s the rose-colored glasses version of capitalism and its virtue (I’m not going to dive fully into capitalism vs. socialism here, nor talk about capitalism’s flaws, which are many; let’s just agree there can be rewards in a capitalist system).
Nevertheless, when you are a star athlete, your private life is no longer private. Not now. Not in the age of Social Media’s Panopticon that sees and captures and markets everything about everyone. On the plus side, we know everything. On the negative side, again, we know everything.
So, yes, it is possible to know way too much about your heroes. Pretty soon all you see are dollar signs, and people doing whatever they have to do to maximize profits. You see the tarnish of steroids on Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire. You see your favorite football team look the other way at unsavory incidents until they just can’t be ignored any more (see SF 49ers and the case of Smith, Aldon).
Does morality enter this? I’m not sure. Athletes are still people living their own lives in their own situations that you will never know. It might be that all that matters is athletic capitalism. You sell whatever you have to sell, with whatever skills or tools you can find, to give enough people enough thrills that they send lots of money your way.
Maybe motivation doesn’t matter. Sports can still be thrilling, the flight of a perfect spiral, an elusive move on the field or a brilliant diving defensive stop, a fluid give-and-go leading to a curled shot to upper left corner of the net. Victory, defeat, these all still matter, even if the motivations aren’t those of idealistic novels for young children.
You can still have your heroes. Just don’t look too closely or too clearly if you aren’t ready for difficult questions.