Let’s start with a simple truth: Bill Belichick is a damn good football coach. Let’s take that further: after leading the New England Patriots to nine Super Bowls, and winning six, Belichick has built a very strong case to be the greatest head coach in NFL history. Here is another unavoidable truth: Belichick has also earned a staggering amount of criticism in his 46-year career. Then, on Monday he did what many thought unthinkable. Belichick, a taciturn old-school curmudgeon who seemed the very opposite of the progressive movement that has opposed Donald Trump, turned down the presidential medal of freedom after a Maga mob’s violent assault on the Capitol.
On Monday night, Belichick released a statement saying that he would be passing on the honor. “Recently, I was offered the opportunity to receive the presidential medal of freedom,” the statement read, “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.”
The passive voice of the statement, “the decision has been made,” suggests that this wasn’t solely Belichick’s call, but even so, he should be praised for ultimately doing the right thing. In rejecting Trump, Belichick is doing something that many of the president’s friends and allies have refused to do despite the events of the last week.
And make no mistake, until this moment, Belichick has fully established himself as being in Trump’s corner. When Trump was on the campaign trail back in 2016, he proudly shared a fawning letter apparently written by Belichick. “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign,” it began, in language that sounded suspiciously like Trump had written it himself. “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media and have come out beautifully. Beautifully.” Considering Trump’s history of fabricating stories, there was justifiable skepticism that Belichick had actually written the letter.
Belichick, however, quickly declared his support of Trump. “Our friendship goes back many years,” he said, “and I think that anybody who’s spent more than five minutes with me knows I’m not a political person.” For someone like Trump, who judges people on how lavishly they praise him, this alone was probably enough for Belichick to earn America’s highest civilian honor. Given how easy Trump is given to slights, there’s a good chance that Belichick’s decision, no matter how delicately phrased in this statement, has ended their friendship.
Beyond the personal ramifications, Belichick has turned down what would be, in most circumstances, the country’s most prestigious honor. It’s not something one does lightly and it’s an action that could very well surprise Belichick’s critics who have criticized the head coach for his “win at all costs” mentality.
Belichick’s Patriots, after all, have been at the center of two high-profile cheating scandals. Most notoriously, there was 2007’s Spygate in which the Patriots were penalized for illegally taping their opponents’ signals, followed by 2015’s Deflategate. The latter was a decidedly silly affair, one which Belichick claimed complete ignorance of, but it added fuel to the fire to those who would put an asterisk next to the entirety of the Brady-Belichick era Pats. How much the Patriots have benefited from these incidents remains an open question, but Belichick’s coaching strategy clearly has involved – to some extent – playing fast and loose with the rules. Come to think of it, it’s possible that Trump saw him as a kindred spirit because of this as well.
In any case, even if he hadn’t had these blemishes on his coaching career, Belichick’s public-facing personality would have also guaranteed him a spot among the league’s least-loved figures. Beyond acting as the head coach, Belichick is also involved with putting together the on-field product. There is little sentimentality in Patriots-land, Belichick the GM does not hesitate to move on from even beloved players, whether he thinks they are due for a decline or simply will be too big of a salary cap hit. He’s also earned a reputation of being an on-field taskmaster.
The rest of the NFL landscape joined together this season to celebrate the Patriots’ first losing record since 2000. Some of this was because sports fans grow to hate teams that win too often. Just look at the Golden State Warriors in the NBA as an example for a franchise that went from a bunch of lovable scrappers to a despised superteam in a handful of seasons. The truth is, however, that the biggest reason the Patriots were disliked, especially now that Tom Brady was out of the picture, was because of their head coach. It wasn’t just that the Patriots kept winning, it was that Belichick seemed to take no joy in the process.
In all likelihood, the private Belichick is a different person than any of these various versions of Belichick: whether it be the curmudgeon that pops up in the press conference, the conniving rule-bender that haunts his opponent’s imaginations, or the cold-hearted businessman who will trade your favorite player yesterday if it will save him a nickel tomorrow. There are plenty of stories out there about Belichick off-the-field that present him as being much more affable than any of the faces he reveals to the general public. Heck, there’s even a rumor that he has a wicked sense of humor.
We can’t really know someone’s inner-life, not for certain, but we can judge them by their actions. In this case, Belichick has done the right thing. According to reports, Belichick was to receive the medal in a private ceremony on Thursday which would have been just a little over a week since a pro-Trump mob, egged on by the president himself, waged an assault on the Capitol which led to the deaths of five people. The event has led to an overdue reckoning over how radicalized and dangerous the president’s more hardcore supporters have become.
Right now, in response, the House of Representatives is launching impeachment proceedings against the president. It’s under these circumstances that Trump, his days in office dwindling, was essentially planning to use what is supposed to be the nation’s highest honor to pay back one of his rich, famous friends for saying nice things about him.
If Belichick accepted the medal from a disgraced would-be dictator days after an attempted coup, he would have validated the very worst accusations of his most vehement critics. During an era in which the NFL’s majority black playing corps have taken on white supremacy, Belichick would have been aligning himself forever with a man who has done much to promote it.
Instead, Belichick took a stand that involved no small amount of personal sacrifice. For once, at least, Belichick proved his critics wrong. The head coach ended his statement commenting on the Patriots’ commitment to social justice: “continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award.” Sometimes, it turns out, it’s not about winning above all.