Bill Belichick is known to be a man of few words. He’s also known to be a friend of President Donald Trump. But Tuesday, Belichick released a statement — a whole paragraph, in fact — refusing the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Trump would award Belichick on Thursday with the nation’s highest civilian honor, a medal that has been received by the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez and Maya Angelou.
However, days after people donning red, white and blue, MAGA hats and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags stormed the Capitol, the revered head coach of the New England Patriots distanced himself and the franchise from the riot, the violence and the president.
Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft and Belichick have long been known as supporters of Trump. Four years ago, Kraft contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. On the eve of the 2016 election, Trump read rallygoers a letter that Belichick had written him, full of utmost respect and sincerity. After the Patriots handed the Falcons a loss in Super Bowl LI, the team went to the White House, despite other professional sports teams declining the invitation. Last summer, Trump said he would tap Belichick for military advice, to which Belichick politely said he’d stick to coaching football. And just last month, Trump appointed Belichick to a second term on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.
With such history, Belichick’s refusal to accept the award is perhaps one of the largest snubs Trump could have gotten from any sports figure. But I’d argue Belichick’s statement did more than serve as a slap in Trump’s face, if not just for the sake of symbolism.
Belichick, after all, represents a team named the Patriots. The Patriots’ home of New England is cited as the birthplace of the country, and the team dons the colors of the American flag. In what will be looked at as a defining time in the nation’s history, Belichick sought to erase any confusion about what is patriotic and what is American. Those who stormed the Capitol are not the patriots they proclaim themselves to be.
For the first time, I find myself comparing Belichick to American soccer star and activist Megan Rapinoe. Earlier this week, she said the Bay Area woman wearing a U.S. women’s national team sweatshirt after returning from the “Stop the Steal” rally was not the kind of fan she and her teammates would welcome. Belichick didn’t exactly say all that, but Rapinoe and him have both delivered a similar message — the stars and stripes do not represent those who attacked the Capitol in the name of Trump.
Now, while I applaud Belichick, his statement is not without fault. Although the decision as a whole is a strong statement, the language is weak — Belichick’s use of the passive voice is quite frankly, very passive. In acknowledging that he represents his family and the Patriots team, Belichick stated “the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award.”
The events didn’t simply occur, however. The president encouraged a mob to act, and those in the mob proceeded to destroy federal property, threaten the lives of elected officials, beat fellow Americans and halt our democratic process, together known as “the tragic events.” It’s important that everyone — Belichick included — recognize this and the problem in normalizing or reducing such incidents.
Furthermore, in stating that “the decision has been made,” Belichick removes some degree of ownership from himself. Perhaps this was Belichick’s attempt to soften the harsh blow to his friend or to let it be known that the refusal to accept the individual honor was a group decision. In any case, being the leader he is, he should have taken full ownership.
My final issue comes in the timing of Belichick’s denouncement of Trump. Yes, it’s important that it came, but it could have come sooner. It could have come after Trump first proposed a discriminatory travel ban. It could have come after Trump used tear gas to clear peaceful protestors for a photo op on the steps of a church. It could have come after Trump called for the removal of NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem — imagine how powerful a statement from the NFL’s greatest coach would have been at that time. One doesn’t need to be presented with a medal to say that they don’t stand with the president nor the harm he has caused and has been associated with.
While I can’t agree with all of Belichick’s prior decisions or lack thereof, he did the right thing Tuesday. In defending his friendship with Trump and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Belichick has said it’s not about politics but about friendship and loyalty. On Tuesday, though, Belichick chose loyalty to the country over Trump, perhaps realizing the distinction between the two for the first time. There are a lot of reasons why people hate the Patriots (mostly due to the team’s six Super Bowl victories over the past two decades), but this moment in history will not be one of them.