On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump played an ace in the hole in New Hampshire.
It was a strong letter of support from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. It wasn’t intended to be shared as a gesture of public support but Trump shared it anyway.
It read, “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to make America great again. Best wishes for great results tomorrow.”
Trump understood the weight Belichick’s personal approval would carry. It meant the greatest coach in the NFL was on his side.
Is Belichick still there?
Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis
Unfortunately for Belichick, Trump tore down his political firewall when he shared that private note. And in the nearly four years since Belichick MAGA’d for the would-be president, so many unfathomable things have been said or done that one wonders if Belichick still remains an unwavering ally.
Where the Patriots head coach now stands is relevant.
Absent any kind of statement otherwise, it’s inevitable to wonder whether Belichick’s support of a president who — since 2016 — has found myriad ways to undercut, minimize, demonize and insult NFL players fighting for social justice remains as strong.
So many current and former Patriots have taken public leadership roles in that arena — the McCourtys, Matthew Slater, Benjamin Watson, Duron Harmon, Chris Long, Martellus Bennett — all with Belichick’s blessing and support.
But it’s still hard to reconcile how Belichick can at once support those players and their causes while also supporting a president who undermines them.
It’s something some of his players have grappled with.
“He told the players not to get into the election or debate with the media because it would become a distraction,” one former Patriot told me this week. “So we listened but when we he endorsed Trump, a lot of people were upset. He tried to say he didn’t endorse him and that he was just writing a friend a letter but we all knew what that letter meant.”
Meanwhile, another ex-Patriot isn’t holding his breath for Belichick to make a comment.
“I think the minority of coaches actually give a shit enough to step off the ledge,” he said. “I think he cares about players but not enough to speak out on this. Is anyone surprised? Great football coach. There’s a lot of different ways to be a great football coach. His is winning a ton of games.”
Even with his previous support for Trump being public, Belichick seems to have been conferred immunity from specific scrutiny as the nation rages over the murder of George Floyd. The Patriots released a statement that would seemingly cover Belichick. But while others in the league are tiptoeing through minefields or baring their souls, the most important non-player in the league isn't saying anything and probably won't.
It is fair to ask what a public statement by Belichick would accomplish. Anything less than a complete disavowal of Trump’s verbal treatment of NFL players would be used as a cudgel against him. And wringing a comment from Belichick to satiate the media or the masses? Fat chance. That’s the antithesis of who he is.
How many times has he said from the podium that he doesn’t share details of private conversations? If a player would like to know where he stands, there’s no doubt Belichick would turn him away. Further, in that locker room of 53 men there are plenty of players with conservative views. Does Belichick then have to go smooth things over with them? Where does it end?
Belichick's support is there, former Patriots Benjamin Watson told me this week on the Patriots Talk Podcast.
“I was talking to someone the other day with the team, and I was telling him just that the Patriots, I believe, have done a good job in allowing their players to get involved with issues outside of the game," Watson said. "They've provided a space. There was a bill about education that came up last year, here in Massachusetts. A number of players got on board, speaking about it and talking about it. They had support from Mr. Kraft. They had support from Coach (Bill) Belichick to go and do those things. Support from the PR department. Other teams aren't like that, so there are varying degrees of which the organization will support and understand.”
Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:
If Belichick was just an Average Joe punching the clock, would his political views matter to the general public? Has Belichick forfeited the right to support whoever he wants politically? Does it matter what Seth in Gloucester thinks? No. No. And not really.
But it does matter what his players think.
It matters if they wonder whether he is fully supportive of them. And since Donald Trump decided in 2016 to brandish Belichick’s note as evidence their boss was riding with him, it absolutely calls that into question.
There is no debating whether or not Belichick has “done the work” during his 45 years as an NFL coach. Ask NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who received so much from Belichick to help the Amer-I-can Foundation.
“He has been face to face with my gangsters in L.A. and in Cleveland,” Brown said in 2008. “Belichick is the only person that you would know who has been in my home with these guys. He has been in the hotel room in Cleveland with them; not only that, he’s been to the graduation; not only that, he got us our first contract in Rhode Island. And not only that, when he fined his players one year, he gave all the fine money to the foundation.
“He was there to lend his support and credibility and allow the gang members to meet him,” Brown said. “What happens is that when someone like that comes into my living room and sits down with them, it makes them feel that they have support. They read about this guy and all that, they never expect him to come and sit down with us and be a regular guy.”
In October 2016, less than a month before the election, Belichick took the Patriots to visit Jim Brown’s statue when the team was in Cleveland. Belichick wanted those players to appreciate Brown’s impact both in the NFL and in the community.
That visit was just one of many important gestures Belichick has made over the years in an effort to get his players to understand and appreciate who came before them and, perhaps, what they themselves can do with their platforms.
Nobody with the Patriots franchise has a bigger platform and a more important voice than Bill Belichick. No one is more influential.
It’s not wrong to wonder what — if anything — he will do with it right now.