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The Patriots have a Trump problem

The Patriots have the closest connection to the Republican president-elect of any NFL team. And many of their fans in liberal Massachusetts are having trouble reconciling their love for the team with their dislike of the man.

The Clinton-Kaine signs were still up on the afternoon of Dec. 24, sagging in the snow like tombstones of hope. They flashed by the windows as I drove through my hometown of Lincoln, Mass., where 77.7 percent of residents voted for Hillary Clinton. Hanging off porches behind some of the Clinton signs were New England Patriots flags.

For over a decade now, people outside of New England have reviled the Patriots for turning winning into a science and, many believe, cheating to do so. Pats fans doubled-down in response, and a fierce loyalty took root in Massachusetts that, through the sagas of Spygate and Deflategate, seemed unshakable.

But recently, that blind faith has faced its greatest test in the form of the team’s connection to Republican President-elect Donald Trump.

The trouble began when Patriots reporters spotted Brady with a Make America Great Again hat in his locker in Foxboro in the fall of 2015 (feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?), soon after Trump announced his candidacy and called Mexicans rapists in the same speech. Over the past year and a half, the team’s ties to Trump have only grown stronger.

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It isn’t shocking that Patriots fans would have trouble with this relationship: Massachusetts was the only state in the country where every county went for Hillary Clinton. Massachusetts does have counties that tend to be larger than those of other states, and some towns went for Trump — namely a band in central Massachusetts and a cluster near Rhode Island. But even most of the working class, white towns on Cape Cod and surrounding Boston voted for Clinton. She won 60.8 percent of the state. Trump took only 33.5 percent.

In fact, all of New England went for Clinton. And yet, the Patriots are the only team whose head coach, star quarterback, and wealthy owner have such a long-running, public relationship with the Republican president-elect, who’s one of the most divisive and fear-inspiring figures in the history of American politics.

Not all Massachusetts fans are bothered by the team’s Trump connection, of course — the Pats are still wildly popular. They were playing the Jets as I drove through town on Christmas Eve, and the streets were that particular kind of empty that falls over the state when a game is on. Driveways held extra cars. TVs flickered in windows.

But no matter how you feel about Trump or the Patriots, the truth is that one of the bluest states has the reddest team.

* * *

I was working for Boston.com when Deflategate started in early 2015. It felt like the non-scandal was all we wrote about and all anyone in Boston talked about for months — even obscure figures like U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman, who ruled in Tom Brady’s favor, became heroes, supporting protagonists in a very boring sports thriller. I once overheard a few guys in a Boston bar raise their beers and toast, “TO JUDGE BERMAN!”

That righteous indignation only fueled the Pats-fans-against-the-world mentality that began to take shape after Spygate in 2007, when the NFL disciplined the team for videotaping the Jets' defensive coaches. Since then, it’s seemed like everyone outside of the L.L. Bean Boot-heavy (a company currently struggling with a Trump problem of its own) states thinks the Pats are cheaters. No one likes cheaters who win all the time.

Patriots fans have therefore spent the past 10 years defending Brady, Belichick, and Kraft, the region’s holy trinity. Brady’s been a god since he and his chiseled jawline stepped onto the turf at Gillette Stadium almost 20 years ago and started proving all the haters wrong. Speaking badly about “Tommy” in Boston is like trashing the Pope when you’re inside the Vatican: At best, sacrilegious. At worst, a death wish.

And then came Trump.

I remember the shock that went around the internet when the hat pictures surfaced. Trump was largely still a joke then, so some thought that maybe Brady was just messing with the media. Others hoped someone had given the hat to him ironically and he hadn’t gotten rid of it yet.

That thinking turned out to be wishful: Brady went on to say it’d be “great” if his “friend” Trump won the election, and then later walked those comments back. Trump told The New York Times shortly thereafter: “Tom Brady is a great friend of mine. He's a winner and he likes winners.”

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In the NFL offseason, Bill Belichick’s girlfriend Linda Holliday posted an Instagram of herself and Belichick with Trump (she also posted a photo with Kid Rock, but I digress). This fall, Brady refused to denounce Trump’s “locker room talk” in a press conference, leaving the stage instead of addressing a reporter’s question regarding the tape in which Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Brady then spoke about how Trump has been his friend for 16 years (the two are golfing buddies) on Boston sports radio.

Brady declined to say who he’d vote for, but his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, denied on Instagram that she and Brady would vote for Trump. The quarterback himself never went public with his choice, saying instead at a press conference that his wife told him not to talk about politics anymore.

The night before the election, Trump said that Brady and Belichick supported him, and read out loud a letter that Belichick wrote him — in which Belichick commended the candidate for doing doing a “tremendous” job — at a rally in New Hampshire. When asked about the letter, Belichick said that it was not politically motivated. On Nov. 16, a few days after the election, Kraft was seen entering Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Patriots aren’t the only figures in the NFL who’ve buddied up to Trump: Rex Ryan (R.I.P. his career with the Bills), for example, introduced the president-elect at a rally. There were many pieces written this fall about how many white players supported Trump.

But the Patriots’ relationship is different: It’s been the most public, and the team is one of the most popular and most successful franchises. They have, arguably, the most respected coach, a quarterback who is heading for — if he hasn’t already reached — G.O.A.T. status, and probably the second-most powerful owner in the NFL. They also have one of the top-five biggest fan bases in a top-five media market.

That media market also happens to be one of the most liberal. And the candidate the team is so connected to ran with the most non-liberal (and racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, etc.) rhetoric.

Being a sports fan often means turning a blind eye to the political opinions and occasionally abysmal actions of your athletic heroes. Being a fan of any celebrity demands this — just ask anyone who listens to Kanye West. The 2016 election cycle, however, was decidedly not politics as usual. Trump’s whole campaign was littered with revelations — such as his refusing to rent apartments to black tenants decades ago, posting anti-Semitic memes, proposing a ban on Muslims from entering the country and forcing them to place themselves on a registry, bragging about sexually assaulting women — that would’ve prompted other politicians to withdraw from the race.

In the past, if a team’s politics didn’t align with those of its fan base, most fans could live with it. But the game got way uglier, and many people seem to be struggling: Fans flocked to Brady’s Facebook page the day Trump read the letter in New Hampshire to leave comments about how disappointed they were. Countless New England loyalists I’ve talked to over the past two months have told me that their idols are wobbling on their pedestals.

For some, they’ve shattered.

* * *

I was at a neighborhood holiday party in Lincoln a few days before Christmas, talking to the parents of several friends I grew up with. They asked about my job, so the conversation turned to sports. And then, naturally, to the Patriots. And then, naturally, to Trump.

“Oh, Susan Pease won’t even watch anymore,” one of my friend’s moms said. “She used to watch every Sunday with her family, and now she just can’t do it.”

I called Pease a few days later to ask her if this was true.

“Yeah, I just will not watch,” she said. “I really enjoy watching the game with my family. I like what it means for my family to sit down and talk and laugh and watch and snack and now ... I just, it’s just ruined for me. It’s not the worst thing about this, of course — this whole thing stems from my tremendous disappointment over this election and country. But it will forever color my opinion of the team. I will not watch, I will not buy any more jerseys. I’m done.”

Over the course of reporting this story, I’ve received countless emails and Facebook messages from people in Massachusetts telling me how disappointed they are in their team. Writing those letters almost seemed like catharsis for many: Several ended with sentiments along the lines of “it feels so good to get this off my chest,” and “I’ve been thinking about this so much.”

Some of these notes I got were filled with anger. People wrote things like “Fuck Brady,” and “I used to think Belichick was a genius and now I hate him,” and “I actually take delight when they lose.” Pease isn’t alone — at least six other people told me they can’t bear to watch Pats games anymore, either. A few told me that they were looking for a reason to give football up already because they find the NFL immoral and what it does to men’s bodies indefensible. Trump was the final straw that eliminated any feelings of loyalty.

Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Many fans, however, are still watching games and rooting for the Pats. Joe Martini, who lives in Boston, grew up an ardent Patriots fan in Arlington, Mass., and voted for Trump, told me that Brady influenced his positive opinion of the candidate.

“I look at Brady's endorsement of Trump a little differently,” he said. “Some people who do not support Trump look at it as a knock on Brady, but I look at it as a great sign for the person Donald Trump is. If you look at the man Tom Brady presents himself as, and the values he tries to instill in teammates, many of them minorities, and his family, his wife is a Brazilian immigrant, I would have to imagine he sees those same values in Trump to support him.”

Even if, unlike Martini, fans were horrified by Trump himself, many told me that they respected everyone’s right to their own opinion. They worried that if they started holding Trump against Brady, they’d be going down a path of dividing an already divided country even more.

What most people on either side of the aisle did have a hard time stomaching, however, was Belichick’s violation of his own strict media policy. Even though we don’t know who Belichick voted for — or if he voted at all — some fans saw his letter to Trump as a blatant violation of the one rule he’s always preached: No distractions.

In fact, the language in the letter seemed so out of character that people had trouble believing it was real at first. I certainly did — I made a joke on Twitter that Belichick wrote all of my college letters of recommendation when the story broke because I found it so strange. My phone blew up as friends texted me that they were sure Trump wrote the letter himself. Belichick, they reasoned in a panic, is famously gruff and short. He wouldn’t use Trump-specific words like “tremendous,” nor would he dare break his own ethos.

But Belichick did. He wrote the letter, doesn’t appear to have told Trump he couldn’t read it out loud (Brady, however, implied at a press conference that maybe he hadn’t given Trump permission to speak about him that night), and then defended it.

Enjoyed dinner at Mar-a-Lago this evening with our good friend Donald Trump

A photo posted by Linda Holliday✨ (@lindaholliday_) on

Fans found this situation wildly hypocritical. Jeff Kirchick, a die-hard Pats fan from Massachusetts who now lives in New York City, took the letter particularly hard.

“In their personal time, a lot of these guys probably do a lot of things I don’t agree with,” said Kirchick. “That’s not my business. But what they do on the field is my business. It’s what I watch.

“So when Belichick takes a stance on the need to be focused,” he continued, “on ‘doing your job,’ and then when it’s convenient for him to do something that serves him and a friendship with Donald Trump, he does it? That’s a betrayal from a fan’s perspective. When it serves him, he can do that, but when the media has questions about relevant things to the game he dismisses them and shuns them because we need to ‘stay focused on the next opponent.”

The distractions, Kirchick believes, hurt the actual game the Patriots were playing: The week of the election, the team lost to the Seahawks. It was close, but New England’s defense couldn’t stop Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter and also couldn’t answer with points of their own. It was one of only two losses in the regular season, and the only game Tom Brady failed to win in 2016.

* * *

It’s hard to have a conversation about the Patriots without talking about Trump anymore. The connection reverberates far beyond the place I grew up.

I watch it happen online all the time. I’ve written about the Patriots a fair amount in the past few weeks as the NFL playoffs got underway. The piece that got the most views was about how I hope we have a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl. I looked at the article a few days after it published and saw it had 235 comments. Even though I didn’t mention Trump at all in the piece, before I scrolled down to the read the comments, I knew they’d be about the team’s connection to him.

They were. Some people were defending the Pats, saying everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. Others declared they hated New England even more now because they were aligned with a monster. Others were saying, “who cares?” Most of the comments quickly derailed — as comments are wont to do — into a fierce debate about politics with very little mention of football.

No matter how anyone feels about the team or the president-elect, the two have become as woven into each other’s histories as Trump’s hair is to his head. The difference is that while the rest of the country doesn’t really have a stake in this connection, Patriots fans in liberal Massachusetts who find Trump abhorrent have to grapple with the emotional implications. Patriotism in the age of Trump, it turns out, is a tricky thing to navigate.