Super Bowl LI is still hours away from kickoff, but the New England Patriots-Atlanta Falcons matchup is already making a case for the most politically charged championship game in NFL history.
The biggest political story line going into tonight’s action is the relationship between President Donald Trump and key figures in the New England Patriots organization, including quarterback Tom Brady, owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick.
Brady was transparent about his friendship with Trump early on. In 2015, one of the president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign hats was spotted in Brady’s locker, and the quarterback later called Trump a “great friend” who had done “amazing” things. After the election, Trump said he received a congratulatory phone call from the Patriots gunslinger.
But in recent months, Brady has been reluctant to answer political questions. “What’s going on in the world?” he told the media Monday when asked about the president’s controversial immigration ban. “I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
“I want to keep my focus on where it should be for me at this moment … I also want to be positive. I don’t want to say anything negative about anybody, or anything, or anybody’s political beliefs” he told USA Today.
Belichick echoed Brady’s sentiment. “I’m focused on getting my team ready to play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night. That’s where all my attention is,” he told the media on opening night.
Meanwhile, Kraft — who attended Trump’s inauguration — has had less success dodging references to his highly publicized friendship with Trump. During an opening night sit-down, Falcons owner Arthur Blank made a joke about Trump being the most famous person in Kraft’s cellphone.
Kraft, a lifelong democrat, has also been open about his relationship with Trump. In January, Kraft told the New York Daily News that their bond dates back to 2011, when Trump was “one of five or six people” who supported the Patriots owner after the death of his wife, Myra.
On opening night, Patriots offensive tackle Nate Solder bluntly told USA Today, “I’ve been doing a lot of reading on it, and I don’t think it really matters what I think. I think that there are a lot of tough things going on in our world right now that are a lot tougher than football, but I am still a football player, so I stay focused on what I can control.”
The Falcons organization has been less forgiving. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on opening night called Trump’s immigration ban “a very tough situation.”
“I hope we can pray as a country for the world to be united. It’s really hard for me to talk about this right now. It would take a lot of time,” said Sanu, who is Muslim.
Speaking with Newsday, Blank took Trump to task for a statement issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to pay remembrance to the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II.
“Obviously, it’s a tragic time in the history of the world, not only for Jewish individuals but for non-Jews as well,” said Blank, who is Jewish. “And so I think it always deserves recognition, it always deserves to remind us of certain characteristics that can take place and to make sure they’re not seen in any form or fashion in any of our democracies or institutions around the world.
“I’m troubled by anything directionally in our country that separates people,” Blank added. “This country was built on inclusion and diversity, on celebration of those differences, supporting those differences, and everybody being the very best they can be in their own way. I’m opposed to anything that takes away from that.”