The Patriots’ Bill Belichick Won’t Be Trump’s Final Sports Stooge
The New England Patriots coach turned down the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week—a fitting coda for a president who’s used sports figures for success-by-association.
The last time President Donald Trump publicly doled out a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the ceremony ended abruptly. On December 7, Dan Gable, the legendary college wrestler and storied coach dutifully had a medal draped over his neck while Trump rambled on about the acronym “G.O.A.T” and ribbed the Olympic gold medal-winning grappler by asking if he might be able to beat him in a match. Once the assembled press began asking about President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump, without warning, drowsily wandered out of the Oval Office, leaving a befuddled Gable to throw up his hands as the cameras rolled, with little left to say other than, “He’s gone.”
A trio of golf greats, Gary Player, who supported apartheid in his native South Africa, Annika Sorenstam, a Trump backer, and Babe Didrikson Zacharias, who died in 1956, similarly received the award last week in a closed ceremony. But that bit of news largely failed to garner much attention, arriving as it did 24 hours after a mob of white nationalists, QAnon cultists, and assorted Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bloody attempt to stop the electoral votes from being counted—a failed putsch egged on by the president.
As his days in office tick down to zero, Trump is evidently determined to carry on with the toastmaster-centric portions of his job, raging pandemic or constitutional crisis notwithstanding. Bill Belichick, the celebrated New England Patriots head coach and long-time friend of the president, will be so honored on Thursday, according to Politico.
That Trump would turn to sports stars as a kind of emotional support buddy at perhaps the nadir of his presidency should come as no surprise. Both in times of crisis and relative stability, the president has surrounded himself with pedigreed jocks and ex-jocks, whether he’s using them as a political punching bag or to bolster the childlike notion of masculinity stretching the course of his entire life. This despite frequent lies about his own athletic prowess and his propensity for cheating at golf.
Unlike the choices of his predecessors, over half of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees have been athletes, often those who’ve donned MAGA hats or had financial ties to the president. That includes Congressman Jim Jordan, who, when not shamelessly bolstering every half-baked utterance that emanates from the White House, is most famous for turning a blind eye to the sexual assault of wrestlers he coached at Ohio State University.
Artists, civil rights heroes, activists, scientists, scholars, and other luminaries haven’t really caught Trump’s eye, nor does he seem to admire athletes whose accomplishments stretch far beyond the field of play, like Billie Jean King or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As is the case with everything else about Trump's befouled tenure, he’s turned the Presidential Medal of Freedom into a chintzy knockoff, designed to flatter the vanities of one person only.
It's a safe space, you see. It’s become all-too-clear over the last four years that the ceremonial parts of the gig are the only aspects Trump ever seemed to relish or put much effort into. To him, the presidency never registered as being more than an endless series of banquets and awards ceremonies where the emcee is surrounded by and lords it over similarly deep-pocketed adoring equals–winners, one and all. And Belichick has long been one of Trump’s go-to sources for success-by-association, no matter how hard the Patriots coach tries to pretend otherwise.
Way back in 2016, when Trump prevailed in the Massachusetts primary, Belichick dropped by Mar-a-Lago to pose for celebratory selfies. (The club member has been a frequent guest at the resort over the years.)
Prior to the 2016 election, he scribbled a letter offering a thudding, shameless endorsement for then-candidate Trump. Naturally, Trump read it aloud on the stump. It didn’t mean anything, though, according to Belichick, because, “I’m not a political person.” During an inaugural gala, the president-elect frequently mentioned Belichick and two other prominent MAGA types in the Patriots’ locker room: Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft. Again, when questioned, Belichick clammed up. “We have a big game,” he said. In the ensuing years, as the horrors of the Trump regime have taken full flower, Belichick has declined to mention Trump in any way, even when questioned directly. (When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff invokes his leadership abilities, he’ll expound at length, though.)
That hasn’t stopped Belichick from accepting a slot on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, where he now serves alongside Colby Covington, an MMA fighter who spews racist dreck; Jorge Masvidal, a UFC cohort who’s all-too-familiar with QAnon language; and an accused quack TV doctor, Mehmet Oz. Unlike Belichick, a pile of has-beens, disgraced former stars, creeps, or shameless Trumpist sycophants haven’t felt compelled to pretend there’s much daylight between themselves and Trump. Storied college football coach Lou Holtz, who had to apologize for accidentally praising Hitler on-air, was happy to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The same goes for Mariano Rivera, the Hall of Fame New York Yankees closer, whose commitment to dominionist theology is so unshakable, he’ll wrap his arms around not just Trump but all manner of pro-Israel hardliners. When those options are lacking, Trump has simply lied about athletes appearing at the 2016 convention or fabricated endorsements that didn’t exist.
But championship teams have largely eschewed the traditional trip to the White House, unwilling to be associated with a revanchist bigot and would-be-authoritarian despot. Those who held their nose and went through with it often found themselves cast as ancillary characters in a stilted, odd, and patently Trump-branded spectacle. Take the University of Clemson football team, which attended a grip-and-grin following their 2019 National Championship. Unfortunately, the president had engineered a wholly futile and purposeless shutdown of the government, leaving no staffers on hand to handle the proceedings. Instead, he served up a buffet packed with gobs of fast food—“their favorite,” Trump asserted at the time. Photos from the gala show Trump beaming from ear to ear, arms spread wide, standing behind a spread of cholesterol-packed goodies.
Still, some members of the student body were wise enough to take a pass. Per The Root, 75 percent of the school’s Black players declined the invitation, with three specifically citing Trump as their reason for doing so. Even a relatively normal gathering of the Baylor women’s college basketball team that same year was marred by awkward, uncomfortable moments and another round of burgers and fries.
If you need any more proof of how profoundly central his association with sports is to Trump’s identity, look no further than his response to the PGA yanking the 2022 championship from his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, an announcement that reportedly left the president “gutted.”
Whether Belichick will attend on Thursday remains an open question. Reached by phone, an official in the Patriots media relations department said, “I don’t think so,” when asked if the team planned to offer a statement. The official then directed The Daily Beast to send an email formally requesting comment and an interview with their head coach. The Patriots did not respond prior to publication.
A man of integrity, someone actually deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, would turn Trump down flat. (Then again, a worthy recipient would never have gotten chummy with Trump in the first place.) If nothing else, it makes for a grim if fitting coda.
Throughout the course of their two-decade-long run of dominance, Belichick’s Patriots have never received much in the way of consequences for bending if not outright breaking the NFL’s rules. In fact, they’ve been near-universally lauded, the instances of cheating dismissed as whining by mere haters and losers. If there’s any justice, Trump won’t ever be able to say the same.
UPDATE: Following publication of The Daily Beast’s story, Belichick said in a statement that while he was “flattered" to be nominated, the events of the past week made it impossible for him to accept. Belichick also cited the social justice conversations and subsequent actions partaken by the New England Patriots this year, calling them “one of the most rewarding things in my professional career.”