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Did last night’s Super Bowl feel strangely familiar—as if you’d been through all of this before?
Here’s the scenario: America watches in horror as the Atlanta Falcons blow a 25-point lead to the most reviled team in sports just as they seemingly have their first championship win in the bag. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was suspended for deflating footballs to give his team a competitive advantage, put up 31 points in the second half. This includes a miracle catch by Pats wide receiver Julian Edelman, one that will likely be studied by astrophysicists for years. In a matter of minutes, the Falcons go from a Cinderella story to a statistic: No team in NFL playoff history had ever lost after leading by that much in the fourth quarter.
For many, the shock and disbelief recalled election night—when America was slowly forced to watch Hillary Clinton forfeit victory to a man who has been accused of sexually assaulting at least 10 women. The Democrat had been the front-runner throughout the race, with poll averages from RealClearPolitics showing Clinton just over two points ahead the day before the election.
Everyone from Bill Maher and Michael Moore to Questlove, the drummer of the Roots, claimed that the Super Bowl was like deja vu.
The comparison is understandable. It’s awful when your team doesn’t win, whether it’s in politics, sports, or whatever season of The Amazing Race we’re on. But to liken the Super Bowl, a sports game with few real-world consequences, to the time voters elected a tangerine tyrant who has threatened to erode the foundations of democracy, delegitimizes the very real fear that millions of Americans live with every day. Brady is a confirmed cheater whose boss will do anything to win, even if it means spying on the other team. Neither of them have threatened to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
If Descartes were alive today, he might amend his famous aphorism to read: “I am, therefore I detest Tom Brady.” No other athlete inspires the same level of blind hatred as the signal caller for the Patriots, who is both irritatingly, dispiritingly good at his job and married to a Brazilian supermodel. As far as punchable faces go, Brady’s is practically begging for it.
But during the 2016 election, the vitriol aimed at the former University of Michigan player kicked up a notch. Brady has been friends with Donald Trump since 2002, when the QB was one of the judges on the panel for the Miss USA pageant. The two men have remained frequent golf buddies ever since, and Brady even owns a “Make America Great Again” hat. The footballer was asked about his support for Trump in 2015, shortly after the politician announced his presidency by referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals. Brady stopped short of an endorsement, but he did offer praise.
“I mean it’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to accomplish,” the player said. “He obviously appeals to a lot of people, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to play golf with.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wrote a letter of support for Trump during the 2016 race, one that the Republican read during a rally. Calling the current president the “ultimate competitor and fighter,” Belichick praised Trump on surviving the “slanted and negative” press coverage of his divisive, volatile campaign. Robert Kraft, who owns the Patriots, even attended a dinner with the president prior to his inauguration.
That love has been reciprocated not just by Trump himself, who tweeted words of support for Brady’s bunch before and after the Super Bowl, but the white supremacist online fringe over at the alt-right, which worked to elect the POTUS. Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who was famously punched in the face, tweeted that he supports the Patriots because they’re the “NFL’s whitest team.” (A 2014 survey found that the whitest team in terms of racial makeup was, by a significant margin, the Philadelphia Eagles.) Spencer further referred to Brady as an “Aryan Avatar.”
The contrast between the two teams is certainly stark. While the Patriots are run by the friends and supporters of Trump, the Falcons represent one of the blackest cities in America. Matt Ryan, Atlanta’s QB and the league’s MVP this season, openly supported Barack Obama for president in 2008.
For many, the Super Bowl is a symbol of America itself—a day when over 100 million people gather around the television with their friends and families. Baseball is often referred to as the nation’s pastime, an image of almost genteel tradition the country would like to project, but football is its darker, truer self. It’s a jacked-up bloodsport that has struggled to accept LGBT people and to come to terms with domestic violence within its ranks, even as the NFL touts its yearly commitment to Breast Cancer Awareness. Seeing the Falcons win in that arena would have felt like not only a victory for the underdog but a powerful rebuke to everything wrong with what the sport represents.
That missed opportunity is disheartening, but the sad reality is that Trump would remain president either way. The Super Bowl, even if it has metaphorical power, isn’t anywhere near comparable to the real power voters exercised on Election Day—or the crushing blow that it has dealt to our country in the weeks since. Any comparison between the two is outright offensive.
It sucks that a likely Trump supporter has his fifth ring, but is it as bad as having a president who literally criticized free speech during a press conference in which he threatened to shut down the internet? Is winning a game really as bad as the man who occupies the highest office in the land dismissing the crucial checks and balances wielded by the court system just because a “so-called judge” ruled against his unconstitutional immigration order? Today, a group of Republican lawmakers—emboldened by the POTUS—introduced a bill that threatens to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Brady is the worst, but his Super Bowl victory isn’t actively destroying the planet.
The outcome of Sunday’s game doesn’t matter, and there are a number of victories that were more important. Budweiser and Lumber 84 both aired commercials that highlighted the struggles of undocumented workers coming to the United States. As the popular beer company powerfully pointed out, Budweiser was founded by Adolphus Busch, who was born in Germany. Trump’s immigration-curbing travel ban, which threatened to block refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, will hurt the next generation of immigrants seeking the same opportunities.
Last year, corporations helped fight anti-LGBT policies across the U.S., and they will play an important role in fighting Trumpism. These commercials were a sign that the business world continues to stand with equality.
But just as crucially, three cast members from Broadway’s Hamilton sang the national anthem prior to last night’s game. Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, who play the Schuyler sisters in the hit musical, tweaked the tune’s lyrics to add a line about “sisterhood.” Lady Gaga belted “Born This Way,” a song that was written to give hope to LGBT youth struggling with suicidal ideation, in front of Vice President Mike Pence, a politician who has previously supported conversion therapy for queer minors. Sunday’s halftime show, which the openly bisexual singer emceed, referenced LGBT people at the Super Bowl in historic fashion.
Sunday’s game was nothing like the 2016 election. On Nov. 8, the country excused bigotry. The Super Bowl was a subtle reminder that the rest of us will keep fighting for our country at every opportunity, no matter how much bling Brady has.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.