The NFL, the New England Patriots, and coach Bill Belichick avoided a disaster by pulling the plug on the planned receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Belichick deserves credit for realizing that, after last week’s insurrection (tough word, strong word, accurate word), proceeding with a ceremony that had been planned before the events of January 6 would now be untenable, especially as the passage of time and the emergence of new video demonstrate how serious the insurrection was.
But how much credit does he really deserve? Was this a selfless act in the name of country, or was it an act of self-preservation in the name of his coaching future?
The carefully-drafted statement from Belichick suggests it was the latter. Through artful use of the passive voice, Belichick never identified the person or persons who made the decision that he won’t accept the award. Was he trying to avoid angering Donald Trump, or was the statement aimed at implying that either someone else made the decision or that Belichick reluctantly made it under pressure from others but doesn’t agree with it?
“I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots football team,” Belichick said in the statement. This implies that he received pressure from his family and from the Patriots to decline the honor.
As to the latter, he definitely did. Per multiple sources, Monday included extensive discussions and communications within the Patriots organization aimed at getting Belichick to choose a path that would preserve his reputation and the reputation of the team he coaches. Whether in the form of fan complaints, media critiques, or free-agent consternation, multiple reasons existed for Belichick deciding to keep his distance from Donald Trump.
Although Belichick preserved that distance, he has not yet disavowed his past support for the outgoing president. Belichick wrote a letter to Trump on the eve of the 2016 election expressing support for Trump’s candidacy. Trump asked for permission to read the letter at a New Hampshire rally. Belichick responded by sending a new letter that Trump characterized as “much better” and “stronger.”
“Congratulations on a tremendous campaign,” Trump said, reading from the Belichick letter in November 2016. “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully — 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.”
That’s what Belichick wrote. That’s what he believed. Unless and until he publicly retracts the sentiments or rescinds the letter or removes certain words (like “amazing”) and replaces them with something else (like “not amazing”), this was not a deathbed conversion. It was an effort to avoid what would have been the death knell for Belichick’s coaching career.