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Hey Tom, it’s time to talk about Trump

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In September 2015, several eagle-eyed sports reporters noticed a curious new addition to star New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s locker — a “Make America Great Again” hat.

Since then, Brady’s relationship with presidential candidate Donald Trump has come up repeatedly — and Tom isn’t talking. Brady initially mentioned that “it would be great” if Trump became president, but stopped short of offering an actual endorsement.

When pushed to clarify his stance on a Boston sports radio show, Brady responded: “Can I just stay out of this debate? Donald, he’s a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for a long time. I support all my friends. That’s what I have to say.”

More recently, Brady walked out of a press conference when asked about how he would explain Trump’s now-infamous “locker room” remarks to his children.

Brady’s silence on this matter may seem strange given his obvious affinity for the Donald. But put in context, it’s at least somewhat more understandable. Under coach Bill Belichick’s watch, the Patriots have become notoriously tight-lipped when talking about, well, anything really. Players who candidly express controversial opinions or flaunt their individualism in other ways tend not to stick around New England for very long. It’s doubtful that Belichick would take kindly to the attention that a political statement by Brady would certainly bring.

Furthermore, Brady is fresh off the heels of the ‘Deflategate’ controversy for which he was suspended four games after a lengthy and relentlessly publicized legal battle (which, by the way, included Trump calling on the NFL to “leave Tom Brady alone” during one of his campaign speeches). He may simply be trying to avoid further controversy by keeping silent and sticking to sports, begging the question as to why he would put the hat in his locker in the first place.

However, the NFL is becoming an increasingly controversial political space. Given the NFL’s association with American identity (and the NFL sure tries hard to hammer contrived patriotism into every aspect of its product), American football players’ beliefs and lifestyles are examined, analyzed, and evaluated much more than most other professional athletes.

For instance, the outburst of anger and criticism in response to Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests was accompanied by the problematic belief that Kaepernick was supposedly disrespecting two American traditions: the National Anthem and football.

This critical attention is problematic for a number of reasons, one being that it consistently targets some players more than others. For example, elaborate celebrations by Cam Newton, one of the few black quarterbacks in the league, have been deemed “arrogant” and “thuggish,” while similar acts by white players have gone completely unnoticed.

Some players have been penalized for performing Islamic prayer rituals after touchdowns, although Christian expressions of faith have always been permitted. And the NFL collectively rejected its first openly gay player, defensive end Michael Sam, despite all the PR created by the league to celebrate his induction. Several anonymous sources have alleged that many teams were unwilling to offer Sam a roster spot because of the ‘distractions’ that his presence would bring. Sam himself has stated that he believes he’d still be playing if not for his sexual orientation.

The irony of all this is that although these players are punished for expressing themselves too much, they’re also reprimanded when they don’t say enough. Marshawn Lynch, another frequent victim of accusations of “thuggery,” was fined by the league for not speaking at his press conferences, prompting his own protest of sorts in which he answered every question at subsequent media appearances simply with “thanks for asking” or “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

The line that players are expected to walk between being interesting and personable without expressing too much of their own identities is becoming increasingly thin. Two-thirds of the league’s players are black, but the vast majority of team owners, general managers and coaches are white.

Limiting players’ opportunity to engage with political and social issues is a clear manifestation of systemic oppression, as is forcing black players to defend themselves and their views while letting white players like Brady off the hook. As fans, we should either demand more from Brady, or stop forcing other less privileged players to justify their individuality.

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