The defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Tom Brady, kick off the 2021 NFL regular season this Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Brady won his seventh Super Bowl last season. I wanted to root for the Bucs to win given that their field goal kicker, Ryan Succop, is a Hickory native. But, as in the past, I found it hard to root for Brady. My animus towards Brady probably says more about me than him. But I suspect that many others throughout the nation share my disdain. What is it about him that evokes such a reaction among football fans?
Brady is arguably, perhaps undeniably, the best quarterback and overall football player of all time. His career has been extremely statistically impressive. And he wins when it counts. Brady has won seven Super Bowls, three more than those who have won the second most (Montana and Bradshaw, each with four). He continues to play at an elite level in his 40s in a league where the average career lasts 3.3 years. And having won Super Bowls with both the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he has shown that his success is not dependent on his long-time association with New England head coach Bill Bellichick.
Part of the animosity toward Brady likely emanates from his success alone. Brady has crushed the dreams of innumerable fans who hope and cheer for their local team to bring home a championship year after year (doing just that for Panthers’ fans during Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004). But beyond the sting of defeat, perhaps lies something deeper — the difficulty that the vast majority of us have relating to someone who has achieved Brady’s level of excellence and the frustrations that we project onto those at the top of social hierarchies. Exceedingly few of us end up in the top tiny fraction of the most successful of those within our profession. We find it difficult to relate to those who seem “untouchable” and may resent or project our self-perceived inadequacies onto those at the top.
Still, such feelings seem to tend to be particularly concentrated on Brady more so than others. I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and as an adult have long admired and rooted for LeBron James. What is it in particular about Brady that rankles?
It is common in the United States to romanticize so-called rags-to-riches stories. During his 2004 Democratic Convention address, Barack Obama introduced himself as someone whose father “grew up herding goats” in a small Kenyan village where his grandfather had been a “servant.” Bill Gates and Steve Jobs “started in their garages” after dropping out of college. LeBron James was raised by a single mother who struggled financially (he is described as “just a kid from Akron” in his feature on the cover of Wheaties). Unlike such stories, rising from disadvantage, taking a risky bet, and/or overcoming long odds does not feature in accounts of Brady’s upbringing (though he was not selected until the sixth round of the NFL draft in 2000 as the 199th overall pick, enabling him to perhaps claim at least a bit of underdog status).
On the field, there is the impression that Brady has been willing to bend the rules to gain advantages — most notably through the so-called Deflategate and Spygate scandals. There is no love lost for those in sports who cheat or are perceived to have done so, as Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, and the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros have learned.
Off the field, Brady, though engaging, does not have quite the same presence as his closest contemporary rival — Peyton Manning. Manning naturally began to build his post-NFL career in the media and entertainment industry while still playing in the NFL, showing a knack for things such as hosting “Saturday Night Live,” broadcasting, and acting in commercials. He comes across as someone you would want to “drink a lot of Budweiser” with (as Manning said he was going to do following the Broncos win over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50). Dispositionally, Brady comes off more like Aaron Rodgers than Manning on the field, appearing dour at times while being quick to harshly condemn teammates for perceived shortcomings (also, in Brady’s case, being reluctant to take responsibility for his own mistakes, such as when he forgot that it was fourth down during a game in 2020 and subsequently would not admit it).
Brady’s image, furthermore, does not align as much with the NFL’s norms of rugged masculinity as other players, such as, for example, Brett Favre, who is perceived to have played quarterback as a gritty “kid out on the playground” willing to put life and limb on the line in the pursuit of glory. Favre wears Wranglers (or at least advertises that he does) whereas Brady prefers Uggs, avocado ice cream, and is married to a Brazilian supermodel.
And then there’s politics. Brady has described Donald Trump as a lifelong friend and a “Make America Great Hat” was spotted in his locker five years ago. His relationship with Trump, who left office after being impeached for a second time with the lowest approval rating ever, is likely viewed by some as a liability.
So while Brady may be first when it comes to football, he remains difficult to root for. Nonetheless, for us here in Hickory, the story of “from Hickory High to Super Bowl champion” is something to celebrate. So a grudging congratulations to Tom Brady. And a loud cheer for Hickory native Ryan Succop as the Bucs seek to defend their Super Bowl title this season.
David Dreyer is a political science professor (and avid sports fan) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.