‘Sleepy Tom’ Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs come to the White House for a very normal visit
The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights
By Annie Linskey,
As the U.S. Marine Band played “We Are the Champions” on the South Lawn of the White House, real-life Super Bowl champion Tom Brady stood near President Biden on Tuesday, both of them wearing sunglasses and grins.
The president, who fancied himself a football star in his younger days, held up a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey and drew a parallel between his political trajectory and Brady’s lengthy career.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with being the oldest guy to make it to the mountaintop,” quipped Biden, who at 78 is the oldest U.S. president, referring to Brady, who at 43 is the oldest quarterback to lead a Super Bowl-winning team. “That’s how I look at it.”
It was in many ways the most traditional of presidential rituals — the visit of a championship team to the White House, allowing athletic stars and political leaders to bask in each other’s all-American glow.
Except that under President Donald Trump, such events were anything but traditional. Many championship athletes, upset by Trump’s politics, declined to come, often prompting Trump to insult or disinvite them. In some cases a racial divide was evident between the players on a team who came and those who did not.
At Tuesday’s celebration — like a Cabinet meeting later in the day — the very point was to be normal, traditional, even dull. That, after all, is what Biden pitched to voters: a presidency so routine that they would not have to think too much about it, especially on a sleepy summer day.
“Picture it,” Jill Biden said at a campaign event last year. “It’s 2021, you wake up and it’s a beautiful morning and you’re drinking your coffee. You grab for the morning news — whether it’s on the TV or the your phone or in the paper — and the headline isn’t about some late-night tweetstorm.”
Certainly, President Biden’s remarks at Tuesday’s event did not fire up Twitter, even if politics was not entirely absent.
Brady in years past seemed to be a Trump supporter, keeping a MAGA hat in his locker. The quarterback was expected to attend the White House celebration for the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl in 2017, though he ended up canceling due to “personal family matters” (prompting some to note that the politics of his wife, model Gisele Bündchen, did not seem to align with Trump’s).
On Tuesday at the White House, Brady noted that the Buccaneers had an up-and-down season and that “not a lot of people think we could have won.” After pausing for effect, he added, “In fact, I think about 40 percent of the people still don’t think we won” — a joking reference to the multitudes who wrongly believe Biden’s victory was illegitimate.
“I understand that,” Biden responded dryly.
Brady kept going, saying that in a game against the Chicago Bears he had lost track of where the team was in the game. “They started calling me ‘Sleepy Tom,’ ” Brady said, an allusion to Trump’s attempt to caricature Biden as “Sleepy Joe.” “Why would they do that to me?”
The event was largely in that vein. The Vince Lombardi trophy, given to the Super Bowl champions, glistened in the July sun. Players laughed and joked, even while dabbing sweat from their faces with white handkerchiefs. They posed for a photo with the president.
The president did turn serious at one point, citing the importance of football during the pandemic. “I hope you all know just how important it was after such a tough year for the nation,” Biden said. “In the middle of a long, dark winter, every Sunday, people were able to sit down and watch you play. You created memories that helped folks make it through and believe that we could get back to normal again.”
The contrast could hardly be greater with the Trump years, when sports became another institution that divided Americans, such as when the president blasted football players who knelt during the national anthem or exchanged taunts with soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
During that era, the ritual of a championship team coming to the White House was frequently eclipsed by news about which players were boycotting the ceremony and why, which players were being pressured to boycott — and which ones were willing to ignore the pressure and go anyway.
Basketball superstars Steph Curry and LeBron James made it clear they would not attend a White House ceremony while Trump was president. When the Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019, the team, like many others, was split among players who came to the White House and those who did not.
Some analysts said the new atmosphere did not suggest any particular support for Biden among the players, but rather the relief at having politics be a less-obvious presence in the sports world.
“This isn’t about Biden being more popular, it’s just the contrast of having a sitting president who’s not being as polarizing,” said Joseph N. Cooper, a professor of sports management at University of Massachusetts at Boston. “It’s something that is a breath of fresh air for a lot of the sports community.”
He added, “You have people from all political backgrounds who were saying, ‘Let’s try to have sports mean what it meant for us historically,’ which is something that brings people together.”
At least one of Biden’s family members predicted early on that he would seek to use sports teams to cement his message of unity.
“He’s certainly going to look to sports and sports figures to help bring us back into alignment as Americans,” Frank Biden, the president’s brother, told ESPN shortly after Biden won the election.
The pattern repeated itself later Tuesday, when Biden convened a Cabinet meeting and held forth on the importance of getting vaccinated, the need for his infrastructure plan, his views on taxing the wealthy and his efforts to reassert American leadership on the global stage.
Missing from the event was the public display of support from appointees that Trump routinely demanded from his top officials. “It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions enthused during one such session early in Trump’s tenure. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, added that it was said a “blessing” to work on the Trump agenda.
Other Trump-led sessions featured stream-of-consciousness soliloquies from the president. In early 2019, he spoke for more than 90 minutes at the beginning of one such meeting, offering a buffet of boasts, falsehoods and revisionist history.
In contrast, Biden on Tuesday offered up a string of less-than-scintillating statements. “I think we’re on a path that’s going to generate significant continued economic growth,” he offered.
The trend of less-partisan sports visits started earlier this month when the Los Angeles Dodgers visited the White House to celebrate their World Series victory. During that event, players who are idolized by fans were giddy to be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Whooooooooo,” said outfielder Cody Bellinger in a video he made showing himself on the pavement outside the West Wing.
Focusing the camera on his teammates, he declared, “At the White House!”