Tom Brady Is a Football God. But He’ll Never Be Interesting.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB is making his 10th (!) Super Bowl appearance, and will go down as the greatest football player ever. He’s also a total blank slate.
A sit-down with the current late-career version of Howard Stern is generally a relaxed, easy-going affair. Unlike his shock-jock heyday, Stern provides his fellow A-listers all the time and space they need to come across as approachable and, well, a tad more human. The celeb will offer up a few choice personal tidbits and maybe let their hair down a bit, while Stern nods, throws an off-color joke into the mix, and keeps the conversation moving along. Stern’s not going to grill his peers until they confess their darkest sins, but the interviews usually are entertaining.
In April, and as the pandemic was spreading across the globe, Tom Brady yakked it up with Stern. At best, the perception of Brady as a vaguely cheerful blank slate remained more or less the same as it was prior to his jumping on the Zoom call.
Perhaps in one or two private moments, Brady has expounded on the cognitive risks inherent to football or the state of race relations in the NFL. If so, he didn’t choose to share them with Stern—or anyone who’s stuck a microphone in the direction of his dimpled chin over the last two decades. Another way to describe his comments is: willfully ignorant.
Brady sang from a hymnal that had long since gone out of date, claiming (literally) he can’t see race, because sports. Being asked to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention did make him feel “uncomfortable,” though. Trump might be a pal, Brady explained, but smiling politely while the ex-president undoubtedly spent 18 holes on the golf course bragging about a fictional encounter with Cheryl Tiegs shouldn’t count as, you know, an endorsement or anything. COVID-19 didn’t seem to concern Brady much, either. Everyone should take the “crazy, nasty, fearful media reports,” as he described them at the time, with a heaping pile of Morton’s. The realization that others might lack the resources to maintain a similarly sunny, worry-free disposition apparently didn’t cross his mind.
No matter how fervidly Stern tugged at his sleeve, Brady didn’t have much to offer other than shopworn platitudes and jock-standard bromides. It’s exactly what anyone who’s paid attention to Brady’s illustrious two-decade-long career should have expected. After all, Brady is a boring person. Painfully boring, even.
Like Gertrude Stein’s line about Oakland, you’ll find that despite all his triumphs and well-deserved accolades, when it comes to all things Tom Brady, there’s no there there. Brady’s job doesn’t require him to be a well-rounded, compelling person outside of work, and scores of sports greats before him have similarly had little to offer off the field. But it does help partially explain why Super Bowl weekend has arrived with a whimper, when it should have been anything but. You’d think dragging a nondescript Tampa Bay Buccaneers team to the Super Bowl, not to mention how this marks Brady’s tenth—10th!—trip alone would stir fans’ collective imaginations. But no. Super Bowl Sunday is sort of going to happen.
Some of this lack of interest can certainly be chalked up to events outside football. While COVID-19 deaths have started to trickle down, out-of-town fans flooding into Florida to watch the game in person risk causing another spike, and a return to something resembling normality is still a ways away. It’s easy to see why attention might be diverted from Brady’s titanic clash with Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs star. Not when we’re only a month removed from an attempted coup by Trumpist goons and a couple of Chiefs players were put at risk of being sidelined, thanks to a hair stylist who had to stop mid-cut when he tested positive for the virus. Even so, the Brady-Mahomes matchup should be manna from heaven for the 24-7 media churn that is Super Bowl week. Instead of the endless attempts to cook up some grand narrative in the desperate hope of grabbing attention, the truth works just fine.
It’s a storyline cribbed from Greek myths: a young upstart in Mahomes capable of firing off ungodly passes that boggle the imagination is challenging arguably the greatest quarterback in football history and seeking to snatch his throne. Regardless of the outcome—whether Mahomes declares himself the one true god, or Brady reaches deep down for one last heroic effort—legacies and NFL lore will be etched in stone. You can practically hear the late John Facenda warming up his vocal cords. The only possible comparison, as quarterback and CBS commentator Tony Romo put it, is if late-’90s Michael Jordan had somehow faced off in the NBA Finals against a 20-something LeBron James.
And Brady is hardly going through the motions the way Jordan did in his brutal final slog with the Washington Wizards. No team-sport athlete—especially not one who’s spent 20-plus years in the NFL meat-grinder—has ever been this good at the ripe old age of 43. Brady remains all-too-capable of carving up defenses while hoarding enough ammo in his right arm to launch a perfectly placed dime. Two Sundays ago, he did exactly that, dropping a gorgeous spiral into the arms of a sprinting wide receiver to put the Buccaneers up by two scores right before the half during the NFC Championship. (To drive the point home, Mahomes’ father, a former MLB pitcher, is only seven years older than Brady. And Brady was drafted by an MLB team the year Mahomes was born.)
As The Nation noted, being a handsome white dude with a net worth well over nine figures affords Brady a whole slew of privileges, including being able to skate through life without developing a distinctive personality. He can cram a MAGA hat in his locker and sheepishly shrug when questioned about whether he ascribes to neo-fascism. He’ll twist the arms of two franchises to add another receiving threat to the roster, repeated allegations of sexual assault or no, and then not seem to comprehend or care much why that might rankle.
Over the years, Team Brady has certainly tried to craft a public-facing image that, you know, people other than New Englanders might actually like. The problem is that no amount of marketing experts can figure out how to construct something real, or at least authentic, on a foundation of nothingness. The deeply weird Facebook series that in the end served as little more than an advertorial for his burgeoning wellness empire is a prime example. Brady positioning himself for a Gwyneth Paltrow-y post-career endeavor isn’t very interesting, save for the fact that he’s peddling gauzy pseudoscience cooked up by his sketchy guru-slash-personal trainer.
The only time Brady has come across as genuinely compelling is when he got busted for allegedly dickeying with the game balls and enlisted a couple of stooges straight out of The Friends of Eddie Coyle to smash his old cellphones. Oh, that and the fact that he’ll occasionally wander onto someone’s property as if he were an adorable, fancy dog
The efforts to package and promote Brady haven’t abated. This year, he partnered with ESPN to produce yet another documentary detailing his astonishing feats and life story. Per reports, the final product will be an extended feature on par with The Last Dance, the 10-hour series dedicated to letting Michael Jordan rehash and re-air some of his many festering grievances. Like the Jordan flick, Brady’s production company will have a hand in the final product. But Jordan was willing to reveal a great deal about himself, even if he did so in ways he probably didn’t intend. For all his flaws and his near-sociopathic competitiveness, Jordan was never dull.
What exactly will 10 or more hours of interviews with and about Brady reveal? What exactly would anyone want to learn about Brady that they don’t already know? Especially when he’s made it patently clear he’d prefer to say nothing, which certainly makes sense for a nullity who doesn’t have anything to say.
But imagine the Touchdown Tom from an alternate timeline, one who, finally unleashed from the shackles of Bill Belichick’s fiefdom, spent this season in Tampa unpacking his true feelings. He might have spat out something along the lines of: yes, actually, for all of Belichick’s tactical brilliance and willingness to fracture the occasional rule, the Patriots and he wouldn’t have amounted to squat without me under center. (On Monday, real-world Brady mouthed vague and nondescript praise for Belichick while hand-waving away three years’ worth of well-sourced reporting and idle gossip all pointing to the same conclusion: the relationship had entirely curdled.) Maybe, finally, he’d have ditched Trump or even stood his ground and told the gathered reporters, these are my reactionary political beliefs and if you don’t agree, cool. That Brady would certainly bring more juice into Sunday’s game. This iteration of Brady did not.
Asked this week whether a Black athlete who backed Louis Farrakhan would be let off the hook, à la Brady and Trump, he punted the question. It was a “hypothetical,” he insisted, and so Brady couldn’t possibly say one way or another.
“I hope everyone can—we’re in this position like I am to, again, try to be the best I can be every day as an athlete, as a player, as a person in my community, for my team and so forth,” said Brady.
“So yeah, I’m not sure what else.”