NFL made a business decision with Donald Trump long ago. Bill Belichick’s move sounded more personal.

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·9-min read

As Monday rolled on for a New England Patriots franchise that has been going about its business in an oddly unfamiliar and empty January, there was a layer of palpable anxiety for some inside the franchise. And it had everything to do with President Donald Trump.

More to the point, it had everything to do with Trump and the team’s head coach, Bill Belichick — and the looming unknown of how the greatest coach in NFL history would respond to an invitation to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Under almost any other administration, this would have been a celebrated moment. The Patriots would have put out a press release, anecdotes would have been passed along and the legacy of Belichick and the Patriots would have been enriched by one of the country’s most prestigious civilian awards.

Like almost every engagement between the NFL and Trump during the course of his administration, this extended hand came in the midst of unfettered political and national controversy. And this wasn’t just any contested moment, but one that had brought Trump’s presidential standing to the brink of constitutional crisis, coming on the heels of an attempted insurrection that targeted congressional leaders, Vice President Mike Pence and the country’s entire democratic election process.

If ever there was a line of demarcation between Trump and the support of his friends, this was it. And that left a persistent, white-knuckled question for some who were in the dark inside the Patriots on Monday.

Was Bill going to accept Trump’s overture?

On Monday afternoon, nobody seemed sure of the answer, but a handful of sources inside the Patriots made at least two things clear.

Bill Belichick's decision to decline Donald Trump's invitation to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom is significant on several fronts. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Bill Belichick's decision to decline Donald Trump's invitation to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom is significant on several fronts. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

First, this was going to be Belichick’s decision. Regardless of how it might impact the organization, nobody seemed to have illusions of anyone — including team owner Robert Kraft or anyone inside Belichick’s tight inner circle — leaning on the head coach about his answer. Whatever happened, the decision was going to be Bill’s alone. That reality pushed into the second point, which was an assumption that the Patriots would suffer some damage if Belichick accepted Trump’s extended hand at such a fractured moment in history. Perhaps not everyone would disagree with an acceptance, but surely a portion of the fan base, sponsors and even Belichick’s own team might have a significant problem with it.

Regardless of which way Belichick went, the end result was going to be a statement that spoke volumes, particularly coming from a coach who showed private support to Trump in the past, but also displayed a longstanding admiration for the historical fabric of the country’s constitutional and democratic principles.

With all that on the line, there was some sense of relief inside the Patriots when Belichick declined Trump’s offer Monday evening. He did it in a pitch-perfect response, one where he sought to underscore the gravity of recent events on his decision. In the statement, Belichick said:

“Recently I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients. Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. 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. Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award.”

Significance of Bill Belichick declining Presidential Medal of Freedom

For at least a small part of Belichick’s legacy, that statement is a vital moment. It’s not a complete break from Trump, whose presidency got some much-publicized early support from the head coach and Kraft. But it is a clear indication that when the line was presented, Belichick made a point to state that his loyalties lie with his country, family and team first. It’s an important distinction that in some ways parallels Kraft’s attempts to differentiate between a friendship with Trump that fielded early public support and his disappointment with Trump’s divisive political nature that he felt undermined the league’s relationship with its players.

There is a lot of nuance wrapped up inside how the NFL and the Patriots have handled their relationships with the president over the past four years. Certainly, none of it has arrived to this point in history in the cleanest of fashions. But there is no denying that the NFL and even some of Trump’s friends inside it distanced themselves from him over the past four years.

The NFL has often appeased or declined to engage president Donald Trump, but that changed over the past year. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
The NFL has often appeased or declined to engage president Donald Trump, but that changed over the past year. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

For some, it will be because Trump’s presidency is coming to an end, taking away his ability to craft advantageous fiscal opportunities. Where it concerns some team owners, it’s fair to make such an assessment, that Trump’s power was the bonding agent rather than his morals or values. He was good for the bottom line of the richest individuals in America. And his pressure on fiscal policy makers drove a level of stock market manipulation that has been remarkably valuable to tens of millions of retirement accounts, too.

But as good as Trump was for NFL franchise owners individually, they all had to grapple with the reality that he was a net negative when it came to his framing of their biggest asset: the league itself, from the television ratings he railed on, to the political upheaval he sowed, to the personal attacks he engaged in and kneeling-related stunts he pulled to feed popular narratives in his base. What became clear to club owners over the past four years is that Trump was happy to shake their hands, drop their names and sign their contribution checks, then shrug and take a baseball bat to their businesses whenever it offered him some kind of net positive.

When NFL, Patriots cooled on Trump

That’s part of what fueled the league’s public separation from Trump. He started out as a president who was great for wealthy tax breaks but ended up as a president who was a train wreck for public relations. Eventually, the league figured out its best course was to do what was in its best interests according to the rhythms of social and public opinion, rather than the spinning compass and wild aim of a leader who was just as likely to cut you off at the knees as he was to raise you up. That epiphany opened the doors for the league to do what it felt was in its best interests, leaning into a complete reversal on kneeling over the summer and an embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement that ran completely contrary to the support of the president and a large portion of his base.

On a micro level, Kraft and the Patriots were a striking example of this. At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Kraft’s support was well-documented through his public statements and through Colin Kaepernick’s messy collusion lawsuit against the NFL. Deposition leaks further suggested the strong ties between league politics and Trump, including some that put Kraft into the middle of the conversations. That wasn’t a surprise considering that for at least the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Kraft appeared to be sustaining his relationship with Trump as both a friend and political ally.

As time went on, Kraft appeared to become more cognizant of Trump’s impact on his Patriots, fueling some of his statements of disappointment that his longtime friend had turned into a divisive political animal. A line became more pronounced and Kraft had to recognize it. The relationship was no longer as simple as reminding people that this was someone Kraft had known long before Trump’s political ambitions, or the supportive role Trump played in Kraft’s life when his wife Myra died in 2011.

There was more at stake, and like the NFL at large, there was a business decision that had to be made. That’s where Kraft’s public support of Trump died down, and the effort to lean into the league’s social justice initiatives became a bigger part of the equation.

Where Belichick draws the line between himself and Trump

In all of this, it’s worth noting that Belichick is now the loudest voice in the league to invoke “values, freedom and democracy” in his decision to decline Trump’s outstretched hand. To date, there has been no overarching league statement about the events of the United States Capitol — and it’s fair to suggest that perhaps there shouldn’t be, anyway. But the league has been largely living inside its own bubble the past week where it concerns Trump, a bubble that was forged by past events and whose ideology is it’s better to ignore the things Trump says and does than to engage.

All of that makes what Belichick just did feel more personal. He could have accepted Trump’s honor as an outright show of support, or simply because Belichick doesn’t like to be told what he should be doing. Also because he could have simply said “no” without context. If anything, it’s more unprecedented for Belichick to explain himself. So the fact that he did so suggests he knows the gravity of the moment.

What Belichick said sounded personal to him, particularly his reminder that he is speaking as “an American citizen.” That sounds like someone who is making a clear prioritization. Yes, he wrote a letter to Trump in support of his presidential run in 2016. Yes, they previously had a long friendship that Trump likes to drop into conversations from time to time. But Belichick is complicated. He also has an appreciation of American history and a steeped family history in the military. And while he doesn’t engage politically very often in public, those who have known him for a long time suggest he’s as thoughtful about the foundational elements of democracy as he is about football.

That’s what led to Monday’s statement. After all the hand-wringing and unknowns about what Belichick might do, his response was personally relayed in a way that said the only thing that matters. There is a line. Belichick sees it and respects it. He recognizes the moment and knows what and who he represents. More than any refusal of a medal, that is what separates him from his friend and president.

As Belichick wrote himself: As an American citizen. And with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.

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