By Terrance Turner
In the past year, professional athletes have been increasingly emboldened to speak out on social issues. In July, Carmelo Anthony appeared with fellow NBA athletes Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James at the 2016 ESPYs, where they decried issues like racial profiling and gun violence. Beginning in August, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked both outrage and support by refusing to stand for the national anthem. His protest of police brutality and racial injustice sparked outrage — and action. Several players began to raise their fists during anthems in a move reminiscent of the 1968 Summer Olympics protest in Mexico City. But as the season drew to a close, some NFL players not only weren’t speaking out on the issues—they didn’t seem to know what they were.
This year’s Pro Bowl was played in Orlando, where 49 people were gunned down in the Pulse nightclub shooting last June. But when Outsports reporter Jeremy Brener asked Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce how he felt about the Pulse attacks, Kelce replied, “I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t even heard of them.” How had Kelce not heard of the worst lone-gunman mass shooting in American history? “I don’t listen to the media. A lot of it’s negative stuff,” he continued. “I don’t really turn on the news or read the newspaper. I hope everybody’s all right and my prayers go out to everybody who was hurt, but I don’t know much about it.”
Brener found another uninformed player when he interviewed Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles. The reporter asked, in part: “How can the NFL players improve relationships with the LGBT community? How can they become more knowledgeable about LGBT issues?” Sproles replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know nothing.” Brener tried again: “Is there talk about LGBT issues in the locker room?” Sproles answered with a question of his own: “What are you saying? What does that stand for?”
It appears that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is also unaware of national goings-on. While addressing the media at Houston’s Minute Maid Park on January 31, Brady was asked about his relationship with the president and flatly stonewalled: “I’m not talking politics at all.” When asked about the executive order that bans residents of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S, he asked, “What’s going on in the world? I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
Perhaps Brady can ask his teammates what’s going on: six of them have announced that they will not be attending the Patriots’ upcoming trip to the White House, a tradition for Super Bowl champion teams. Moreover, four of them are doing so for political reasons. Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett said at Minute Maid Park the same night that he would not attend: “I don’t support the guy that’s in the house.” Free safety Devin McCourty told Time magazine via text message that he’d skip, too. “I don’t feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.” Running back LeGarrette Blount felt the same way: “I just don’t feel welcome in that house,” he said on The Rich Eisen Show February 9.
Defensive lineman Chris Long also passed. As he explained on the podcast Pardon My Take, “I’ve got plenty of serious political issues that probably don’t belong on this show, but I’m just not doing it.” Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is also skipping, having already visited as part of Alabama’s college football championship team in 2009. “Been there, done that,” he said. Defensive tackle Alan Branch said he wanted to spend more time with his family. But are those reasons merely pretexts for their ideological opposition?
Obviously, the demands and pressures of the NFL make it difficult for some players to keep up with current events. The relentless grind of striving toward the Lombardi Trophy clearly prevented Sproles and Kelce from knowing the basics of American civic discourse. But what about Brady? Trump claimed on election night that Brady had voted for him—but the quarterback has remained silent: on his vote, on his relationship with the president, on his personal views. He’s surrounded by vocal teammates, yet resolutely silent. Why?
A possible explanation could lie in a comment by Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Last August, he told ESPN Radio: “I think some guys in the NFL are probably worried about repercussions [from the league] on speaking their mind.” Publicly endorsing a president who’s attacked Mexicans, Muslims, veterans, women, the disabled, the press, and occasionally blacks could be damaging for an NFL superstar’s brand, career, and pocketbook. While some players’ dedication to the sport has them living in a bubble, others may be sealing themselves in a “bubble” of their own making.
UPDATE: Chris Long announced via Instagram on March 1 that he will sign with another team in free agency; Martellus Bennett tweeted on March 9 thanking Patriots fans “for the good times,” an indication that he will likely not return to the team. LeGarrette Blount is also expected to depart. There is still no set date for the White House visit.