Last night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the second Super Bowl in the franchise’s history. Their first win was in 2002, nearly 20 years ago, against the then-Oakland Raiders (that franchise has since relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada). This year, the Buccaneers rose to fame on the coattails of their quarterback, Tom Brady, who became famous through his six Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots. It’s unclear whether or not this was Brady’s swansong — some feel he will never retire — but one thing was definitely obvious last night: Brady brought the Bucs to glory.
But before we impart too much sports heroism on Tom Brady, it’s worth considering the man, and not just the athlete. The NFL argument for decorum led to a cultural debate about kneeling before the American flag, and it also saw one of the league’s most prominent players, Colin Kaepernick, blacklisted for trying to have a conversation about racial justice. Brady’s heroism, though, is bestowed upon him by football lovers who are happy to look the other way at the player’s politics and misguided decisions. But Tom Brady is no hero. A one-time Trump supporter, Brady’s company, TB12, received a nearly $1 million paycheck protection loan, which he reportedly used to purchase a multi-million dollar boat.
Worse than that indiscretion, though, is the matter of the mask. Brady is often seen without a mask (a video of him entering the stadium last night before the game, in a single-file line with other members of the organization, showed everyone wearing one — except Brady). The quarterback’s 76-year-old father, Tom Brady, Sr., recently contracted Covid, and came close to death. In September, the elder Brady spoke to the NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer, saying, “It’s serious. I mean, if we’re not wearing masks, we’re really missing the point.” And then, of his son and mask-wearing: “He’s 43 years of age. We keep harping on it.”
Last night, celebrating the revelry of the Bucs' win, Brady stood on the field with his two (masked) children not wearing one himself. Some may argue that whether or not you wear a mask in public is a matter of personal choice, and, to a certain degree, that’s true. Masks are required in federal buildings (as of January 20, that is), but they are not required everywhere; there’s really no way of instituting any country-wide mandate to that end, and Florida, where the Super Bowl was held, is a state that has pushed back against the mask. (Last week, NBC News released a video taken inside of a Naples, Florida grocery store, in which neither employees nor customers wore masks, despite the fact that the state has seen nearly 30,000 deaths from Covid.)
Those choices, then, are left up to Americans, and Americans must decide whether or not their safety and the safety of others is of premium import. Tom Brady, too, must decide whether or not the safety of his teammates, fans, and even own family members outweighs the vanity of failing to wear a mask. That decision, it seems, is one he has already made.
But one difference between, say, an average American shopping at a Naples grocery store and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback is a matter of platform. Tom Brady is not a private citizen. His life and his work are both actively on display, and so failing to wear a mask sends a very public message. By refusing to mask up, Brady is saying that he either doesn’t believe in science or that he sees himself as different from the pack. The rules of the pandemic don’t apply to him. Worse, he offers the instructive to his fans and to young, aspiring athletes: the wealthy, chosen ones don’t need to do the same things that everyone else does.
In putting Brady on a pedestal, then, we are collectively saying that his ability to play ball eclipses what he represents. We are saying that if you are talented, you don’t owe the world your service. We are saying that the standards we hold for people are only meant to apply to the average, and not to the exceptional. And none of that is actually true. What is true, though, is that the idolatry that comes with being a famous athlete requires responsibility — a responsibility, arguably, that Colin Kaepernick was willing to take, but that Tom Brady is not.
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