Aaron Leibowitz
Friday September 25th, 2015

Through all the twists and turns of the Deflategate saga, the legal bickering and in-depth air pressure analyses, the story remained compelling for one reason: It put the reputation of New England Patriots quarterback and four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady on trial. It led pundits to ask if the National Football League’s Golden Boy was a winner — or a cheater.

Those debates were oversimplified at best, and downright silly at worst, but one defense of No. 12 seemed to color every conversation: Touchdown Tom was a “Man of Character.”

“[Brady] is the face of our league, who has always carried himself with class and integrity and has been an incredible ambassador for our game,” former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner wrote in Sporting News. Ex-Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe called Brady a “guy of great character” on CNN.

“He strikes me as very solid, humble, and extremely driven,” said Mark Leibovich, who wrote a cover story on Brady for the New York Times Magazine. One Boston-area columnist accused NFL commissioner Roger Goodell of a “disgusting character assassination” of Brady.

Now, of course, Brady is free. He took on the almighty NFL and won. His suspension was lifted. The Patriots are 2–0 to start the season.

Whether or not you think he deflated footballs, Brady left the league and its commissioner weakened, making their abuse of power and shoddy labor practices plain for all to see. For many, that was reason enough to cheer the four-time Super Bowl winning QB. Brady’s reputation, though damaged, was on the mend.

Then Brady expressed support for presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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It started on Sept. 8, when one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” trucker hats was spotted in Brady’s locker. Brady explained that Trump had given the hat to Patriots owner Robert Kraft to pass along to the quarterback. Trump, Brady said, “always gives me a call and different types of motivational speeches at different times.” He said their friendship dates back to 2002, adding that “it’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to accomplish. He obviously appeals to a lot of people, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to play golf with.”

Then, on Sept. 16, Brady was asked if Trump has a shot at becoming president. “I hope so,”​ Brady said. “That would be great. There’d be a putting green on the White House lawn. I’m sure of that.”

(There’s already a putting green on the White House lawn.)

On the one hand, Brady did not say, point blank, that he is voting for Trump, nor did he say he endorses Trump’s policies. But he had two chances to distance himself from the nation’s most polarizing figure of the moment. He chose not to. “That would be great” is as close to an official endorsement as you can get.

Brady’s words carry weight. He is one of the most recognizable figures in the country. An entire subsection of New England, young and old, worships him. While he has every right to be friends with Trump, endorsing him for president means endorsing — or at least not condemning — what Trump stands for. Slapping a golf joke on the end doesn’t change that.

Of course, athletes endorsing political candidates is nothing new. In 2012, Barack Obama’s supporters included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Cristiano Ronaldo. Brett Favre once made a video supporting Mississippi senator Thad Cochran. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling touted Scott Brown for senate. Then-Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy endorsed Brad Koplinski for Pennsylvania Lt. Governor.

By using their fame to take political stands, athletes open themselves up to scrutiny. That takes courage. But once you express support for a candidate — whether you’re a public figure or not — you need to be prepared to explain yourself.

Perhaps Brady would be perfectly willing to discuss Trump’s views, and has yet to be asked. So far, though, his praise of the candidate has been surface-level and said with a chuckle. Brady may not want to go any deeper than that, but he should; the implications of Trump as president of the United States are serious. An incident last month in the heart of Pats Nation should make that abundantly clear.

On Aug. 19 in South Boston, two brothers allegedly assaulted a 58-year-old homeless man. Police said the brothers targeted the man because he is Hispanic. One of the brothers, Scott Leader, said he was inspired by Trump. “Donald Trump was right,” Leader reportedly told police after being arrested. “All these illegals need to be deported.”

Trump, told of the incident, first said that “it would be a shame.” Then he added: “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

In his campaign kickoff speech in June, Trump said that the people “Mexico sends” to the United States are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I don’t know Tom Brady. From what I can glean, he seems like an incredibly hard worker and a fitness freak. He seems like a fierce competitor who cares quite a lot about winning. He seems like he has a decent sense of humor.

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But by aligning with Trump, the candidate, he is by default aligning himself with Trump, the xenophobe; Trump, the Islamophobe; and Trump, the misogynist. If Brady takes issue with those aspects of the man, he should say something. Otherwise, the implication is, on some level, that he condones such views. And that would stand in direct conflict with Brady’s (supposed) character.

The greatest stain on Michael Jordan’s legacy has nothing to do with his performance as an athlete. In 1992, Jordan was asked to support the North Carolina senate campaign of democrat Harvey Gantt, a former Charlotte mayor who was taking on republican Sen. Jesse Helms — a “much despised race-baiter,” as ESPN.com’s LZ Granderson described him. Jordan declined, reportedly telling a friend: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

That’s the best-known Jordan quote of all time.

“[F]or many,” Granderson wrote in 2012, “‘Republicans buy sneakers too’ defines Jordan outside of basketball almost as much as hitting clutch shots and hoisting trophies define who he was within it.”

Jordan later changed his tune when pressed on his infamous quote —donating to Barack Obama's senate campaign in 2004 and  expressing public support for him as a president — but MJ will forever be remembered off the court for his initial decision not to take a stand.

Tom Brady does not possess Michael Jordan’s level of societal influence — except maybe in New England — but he is one of the greatest athletes of his generation. When he talks, people listen. There’s still plenty of time for Brady to distance himself from the ugly side of Trump, but continuing to embrace the candidate, free of qualifiers or disclaimers, should be concerning to those who defend the quarterback’s legacy.

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