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Why Tom Brady is one of America’s most polarizing athletes

Love him or hate him, NFL fans can’t quit Tom Brady on the verge of his 10th Super Bowl appearance.

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It difficult to find someone with a lukewarm opinion of Tom Brady. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and New England Patriots legend inspires strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum.

To some, Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, with the legendary resume and hardware to prove it. Others see a cheater, a shameless a brand builder who benefitted from playing for a football dynasty, who refused to take a personal stand on anything to avoid alienating fans, his consumers.

Like all things the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle. It makes Brady one of the most complicated figures in modern American sports, who can be viewed as the greatest athlete of our generation o tremendously overrated depending on your point of view.

Now, with his 10th Super Bowl appearance on the horizon, we dig into the legacy of one of the NFL’s most decorated players, and understand why he elicits such strong emotions.

Why do people love Tom Brady?

Brady represents the archetype of the underdog athlete. We don’t need to spend a great deal discussing this, because we’ve heard his story a million times, in a million different ways over the course of the last 20 years. Scouts didn’t believe in Brady entering the NFL from Michigan, and his average athletic showing at the combine cemented him as a sixth round pick.

He became a star due to circumstance. Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe, leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl in his rookie season in 2001 — it’s a story straight out of a sports movie. Brady’s ascension defied expectations in a way people love, and it perpetuated the dream that anybody with the smarts and drive could excel. I mean, if a slightly doughy, relatively unathletic Brady could win a Super Bowl, then the presumption is that anyone can — even if that’s not true.

Then Brady kept winning, kept succeeding, and in doing so cemented himself as the modern Joe Montana. The rest is history.

Why do people hate Tom Brady?

This one is a little more nuanced, because there isn’t a single overwhelming reason why people dislike Tom Brady. Obviously everyone’s reason for disliking an athlete are individual, but there are a few key buckets we can put people into.

The “Tom is a cheater” crowd

While Brady is certainly responsible for a lot of the Patriots’ success, he will be inexorably linked to two of the league’s biggest scandals: SpyGate and DeflateGate. Yes, tired names that are way too on-the-nose references to Watergate, but nonetheless impactful on his legacy.

You can look at recording the Rams’ practice, or using partially-inflated footballs as small competitive edges, but they raise questions. If these were the incidents that were caught, what lurked under the surface that we never learned about? There are the questions people ask when thinking of Brady as a cheater.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to levy the sins of an organization against one player, but heavy is the head that wears the crown. When you become the figurehead of an organization you take on the benefits, as well as the criticism. Quarterbacks in general get far too much credit and criticism for team results, so when a team is under fire for breaking the rules, naturally much of that will fall on the leader.

There were already debates about whether Brady was the vector for the Patriots’ success, or whether it was more on Bill Belichick — so when controversy swarmed the team there was was similar doubt. How much of this was on Belichick, and how much was on Brady? That alone soured the quarterback in a lot of peoples’ minds, and while perhaps not enough to add an asterisk to his rings, it was enough to raise doubt.

“Brady stands for nothing but his brand”

It’s impossible to separate athletes from their impact on society. That’s been true for decades. Normally this takes shape in frivolous things like product endorsements and sponsorships, with companies clamoring to leverage the facade of athlete approval into sales, but that changed substantially over the last four years.

Everyone in every field was asked for their stance on social justice and racial injustice. Some athlete chose to take a strong stand, turning their fame into activism and pressure for change — but Brady, much as he did throughout his career, sat on the fence and said little of substance.

“It’s certainly been an offseason to listen, learn, have more compassion, and more empathy for one another. Everyone should deserve the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Being in the locker room for 20 years and being around guys with every different race, religion, skin color, background, and different state. Everyone something different to the table and you embrace those things.”

On the surface this might sound like he’s taking a stand, but this is the definition of playing both sides. At a time where people of color were being marginalized and harassed, Brady was calling for “more empathy for one another,” as if it was an issue that flowed both ways.

In isolation this comment may seem innocuous enough, but it came at a time people were desperate for a stronger voice for someone of Brady’s stature. Considering it came not long after the quarterback was seen with a MAGA hat in his locker, which he claimed “found its way there” seemingly by magic, when questioned about it.

Brady has ensured his earning potential remained maximum by refusing to take a stand on just about anything off the football field. This often feels like a desire not to rock the boat, famously doing semantic gymnastics to say he supported his friend Donald Trump, but didn’t necessarily support his politics. The only area he seemed to take a strong stand was on his health and wellness brand TB12, which tells people not to eat tomatoes and live by a strict diet.

The cap to all this might have been the news that Brady, who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars over his NFL career, and is married to one of the highest-paid supermodels in history, took almost $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds, designed to insulate small businesses from Covid, in order to prop up his lifestyle brand. Money ran out of the fund for small mom and pop businesses struggling to stay afloat, while Brady’s pet project got funded.

People who are just sick of hearing about Tom Brady

There’s a lot about Brady’s story as an underdog that’s admirable, but it’s also been built up to mythic proportions that make it harder to swallow. Yes, people didn’t believe in him entering the league, yes Brady overcame a certain amount of adversity in the process. However, his “adversity” is a point of order. Brady’s “struggles” are minute compared to the majority of players entering the NFL. He had a stable, middle class childhood, he got to attend NFL games regularly with his parents, he went to good schools and benefitted from strong role models.

It’s not Brady’s fault he grew up with these privileges, but it’s important to note them — especially when it comes to casting him in the light of “adversity.” Brady didn’t need to overcome poverty, or the loss of a parent, or have the pressure of football potentially changing the lives of everyone in his orbit. If Brady didn’t make it on the field, he could have fallen into any number of fields, and likely carved out a life for himself. The same can’t be said for other players in the NFL.

So, when he’s cast as the star of the “adversity” narrative, it makes some people resent him. On the field he’s often blameless in the eyes of commentators, where other players would be critiqued. In the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, he threw his third interception of the game, a high pass that ricocheted off the hands of Mike Evans, into the hands of a defensive back. The pass wasn’t framed as Brady’s mistake, but rather Evans’ fault for failing to haul in an errant pass. Forget the fact that Mike Evans is one of the tallest receivers in the NFL, and he was jumping at full extension, and that the pass would have sailed to the DB anyway — it was not Brady’s fault as presented.

Brady has been a difference maker for the Buccaneers, but he’s also been elevated to savior status at the expense of his teammates. Tampa Bay’s defense is one of the biggest reasons they’re in the Super Bowl now, but Brady is being awarded all the credit. It’s a similar issue to that of New England, where he excelled inside Belichick’s system — and we didn’t get a great sense for how players perform out of it, other than seeing Brian Hoyer and Jimmy Garoppolo fail to make an impact away from Foxboro.

Instances like that grate on people. They grow tired of feeling like there’s preferential treatment of Brady’s narrative.

They hate Tom Brady because he’s so good

This seems to be the biggest claim of his fans, but Brady’s skill on the field tends to be a minority reason why people don’t like him. Sure, there are probably some fans, particularly in the AFC East who dislike Brady just because he’s so good — but a larger number think he’s an incredible quarterback, but perhaps not the best person, and that’s where their frustration comes from.

There’s also a sense of this all growing tired. Players work their entire careers to make one Super Bowl, and more often than not their dreams have halted at Brady’s feet. While it’s his job to win, there’s certainly resentment from fans who have seen their players lose because of No. 12, and dislike him for it.

In the end, absence will make the heart grow fonder

So much of Brady’s story is tied to the perception and mystique surrounding him. When he decides to retire and all we’re left with are the stats and the highlights there’s a good chance opinion of him will soften, and he’ll simply be remembered as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.

When Brady’s current influence lapses, that’s when he’ll be appreciated simply as a player. For now he’s still very much a part of the NFL, getting ready to play on its brightest stage yet again. There will be plenty of fans cheering for No. 12 to do it again, and those desperately wanting him to fail for a variety of reasons.

Nobody’s mind will change on either side, and that polarization of opinion adds another layer to the Super Bowl.