Facing a vigorous wave of bipartisan criticism as well as the threat of an unprecedented second impeachment, President Trump sought to use New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as a human shield this week by offering arguably the greatest coach in NFL history the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Recognizing what was going on, Belichick, who is (or perhaps was) a friend of Trump, not only declined the offer, he drew an undeniable line in the sand, saying in his statement: “Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy. I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team. One of the most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions.”
Translation: Missed me with that one, homey.
Given Trump’s reported role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, declining was Belichick’s only sensible decision. But then again, if making sensible decisions were easy, seditionists wouldn’t have consumed the Turkish delight offered by the Orange Witch to begin with. Apparently the six-time Super Bowl winner may be willing to secretly record the sideline of his opponents, but he draws the line at hanging the vice president of the United States — just one of the many chants heard from the armed terrorists Trump called “very special” in a video message afterward.
It is as awful as it seems.
And as we try to pick up the pieces from not only last week’s attack but really much of the last four years, Belichick‘s rejection of the nation’s highest civilian honor epitomizes the damage done to some of our most sacred traditions and customs during the Trump administration. It’s as if the president ripped the pages of Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” from the book’s spine and handed them out as a how-to as opposed to a cautionary tale.
A championship team’s visit to the White House used to be a fairly innocuous photo op. Sure, individual athletes in the past have opted not to attend in protest of a president such as Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura, who said he wouldn’t accept President Clinton’s invitation because of his inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Of course, Chmura later found himself in court explaining why he was in his underwear — drunk — in a hot tub with teenage girls at 3:30 a.m. ... but alas, hypocrisy is an indictment of character, not a crime.
Anyway, a player here or there skipping out is not unusual, but an entire team or rather entire teams? Over the last four years, ironically with a loud “stick to sports” battle cry as his soundtrack, Trump has purposefully politicized sports to the point where team logos can double as MAGA hats and White House visits are misconstrued as policy endorsements.
Before Lakers legend and Clippers consultant Jerry West accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in September 2019, a source familiar with the situation told me West was concerned about how it would look, recognizing how polarizing the office itself had become.
Can’t say that I blame him.
Remember, this was all unfolding just as the nation was learning Trump tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation of then-candidate Joe Biden in exchange for foreign aid. It was a revelation that led to Trump’s impeachment. And just as he tried to do with Belichick, the president selected a New England sports legend — in that case Celtics legend Bob Cousy — to come to the White House for the medal as either a distraction or ego boost. For his part, Cousy not only accepted but he called Trump “the most extraordinary president in my lifetime.” West, who voted for President Obama in 2008, accepted but I’m told he did so out of respect for the office, not as an endorsement of any politician or party.
Fast-forward to today and here Trump is again trying to employ the same playbook — except that Belichick saw the blitz coming and scripted a play so complete in its rebuke of Trumpism that the only thing missing was Chris Berman saying, “He-could-go-all-the-way.”
More than half of the recipients of this administration’s medals have been athletes — highlighting Trump’s genuine love of sports. That’s one of the few things he has in common with his immediate predecessor, who not only awarded the medal to icons such as Bill Russell and Billie Jean King but leveraged relationships to help support his administration.
I was at the White House in 2014 covering the announcement of Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and seeing an impressive collection of sport figures including Magic Johnson. I remember seeing former San Diego Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp making campaign stops with a football as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996 and First Lady Nancy Reagan receiving a Washington Football Team jersey that read “Just Say No” to promote her anti-drug initiative of the same name in 1988 at RFK Stadium just before kickoff. Political figures have long tapped into the nation’s unbridled passion for sports to push their agenda, and in that Trump is no different from most any other president.
Where he sticks out is using sports to stoke fires the country has been been trying to put out since 1865 or using the Presidential Medal of Freedom for political spin. Basketball — both college and pros, men and women — has been largely snubbed. The Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited. Megan Rapinoe and her World Cup-winning teammates said, “Nah, we’re good.” It’s been predominantly thorns and no Rose Garden for most everyone except hockey, NASCAR, Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney, who loves the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but hates protests.
I’ll let you try to figure that one out.
I don’t know how much of a sports fan President-elect Biden is, but he has campaigned on bringing the country together and returning to the civility we once took for granted. I assume that would mean the Lakers will be invited to the White House — no NBA team has since 2017. The Dodgers too. Who knows, maybe even the Rams. And if they are invited, and accept, my hope is I forget which day they’re scheduled to show up. Not out of protest but because the ceremony is supposed to be inconsequential.