You can tell Tom Brady feels he’s battling more than just a loss of playing time right now. He’s spent the last couple months watching the world call him a cheater. So now he stands, awaiting word from Roger Goodell, hoping not only for an overturned suspension, but also for exoneration.
But there’s just one problem: It doesn’t work that way.
America is already done with this story. It has been for awhile now. Here in New England, Brady is loved unconditionally, but in the eyes of much of the rest of the country, he has already been found guilty, and no trial or set of facts will change that. Even if Goodell repealed Brady’s suspension, the critics would simply accuse the commissioner of protecting his star quarterback. That’s what makes them critics.
In that sense, Brady is like those Japanese soldiers still fighting, years after World War II ended, because no one told them it was over. But his problem is that he’s doing the math wrong. Brady thinks that people hate him because underinflating footballs is a horrible crime, and thus all that he needs to do is convince people he did no such thing. But that’s not it. The tension started long ago, and the deflated footballs are simply an excuse to justify vocalizing that hate. No fans who are truly being honest with themselves can say that this “crime” is any worse than the thousands of other dirty attempts by players over the years to gain an edge. Attempts ranging from using stickum to make balls more catchable to putting Vaseline on a baseball to give your curveball a little more break.
This isn’t about footballs, it’s about Brady.
And so if Tom Brady’s goal is to win over the public, he has a problem: People just don’t like him very much.
Two weeks ago, LeBron James capped one of the most amazing NBA Finals performances we have ever seen, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game on a team with no one else even worth covering. That’s not just good, that’s other-worldly dominant.
And as he put up the most valiant losing effort since Jerry West, everyone outside of Cleveland rooted against him. Why? Because he’s kind of annoying. While I was watching Game 4 with some people at a bar, we saw James tumble into a camera man, then lay sprawled out, writhing and shouting in pain. “See this is why everyone hates LeBron,” said the guy sitting next to me. “He milks every. Single. Injury.” Eventually, James removed his hands and blood started gushing from his head like a waterfall. The guy sitting next to me muttered something about how, okay, maybe this was a bit worse than it looked at first, but still.
James has spent his entire career hearing from haters. First they said he couldn’t shoot, so he busted his butt building a jumpshot. Then they said he didn’t have a low-post game, so he built one of those too. Then they complained that he didn’t have any rings, so he went out and won a couple titles. At which point they complained that he needed Dwyane Wade to win them. In 2012, a frustrated James complained, “You could be watching cartoons with your kids and you don't like it, you say, 'Blame it on James.' If you go to the grocery store and they don't have the milk that you like, you just say, 'It's James's fault.'" What happened next? The critics said he whined too much.
This isn’t about jumpshots or low post moves, it’s about James.
And so if LeBron James’ goal is to win over the public, he has a problem: People just don’t like him very much.
The idea of hating great players is, of course, nothing new. We are surrounded by self-entitled superstars who break the law, load up on performance enhancing drugs and ignore their children. But Brady and James aren’t those guys.
They have both been model citizens, they commit heavily to charities and -- who can say for sure, but at least by all outward appearances -- they are dads who actually care about their kids. Furthermore, they exemplify all the values we say we care about in our athletes. Working relentlessly to get better. Rising to another level when the games matter most. And being team players. In LeBron James you have an athlete who could score every time he touches the ball and yet has more assists than any other non-point guard in league history. In Brady you have a guy who turns every compliment into an opportunity to praise his receivers or offensive linemen. Good luck getting a former teammate to criticize either of them.
And, oh yeah, they’re really fucking good. Putting up Sports-Center-worthy plays on a near daily basis. Accumulating Hall of Fame stats. Winning Multiple MVP awards and titles. We’re talking about two of the top 10 -- and arguably two of the top 5 -- players of all time in their respective sports. And they’re not even done yet.
They have given us everything we’ve ever claimed we wanted, but we still don’t like them.
There are reasons to dislike them both, of course. James seems just a little too aware of how great he is every time he gives an interview. Plus there was The Decision, a regrettable choice to turn breaking up with his hometown into a look-at-me TV event. But just how heinous are these crimes? Talking candidly about your greatness is nothing new for the best athletes on the planet. Muhammad Ali once said, “My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.” And we think James is too cocky? And as for The Decision, does everyone remember how big a deal this thing was? The best player in the league was changing teams in the prime of his career. The country wanted a spectacle. All James did was deliver (and raise a couple million dollars for the Boys and Girls Club in the process).
Then there’s Brady, the husband of a supermodel who, at some point went full male model himself. He got his hair cut like Justin Bieber and did photo shoots for Ugg boots. And the year after his ACL injury, he complained a little too much to the refs when players hit him illegally. Combine it with the movie-star looks and a smug smile, and suddenly he felt like too much of a pretty boy to be playing in the NFL. Though again you have to wonder, just how heinous is this crime? If you just lost a season to leg injury, wouldn’t you be yelling at the refs to do something about the guys diving at your knees? Is getting your hair cut like Bieber really that bad? Okay, don’t answer that last question.
So is it that people hate James and Brady specifically, or is this just what you’re signing up for if you become dominant in the year 2015? Is all this inevitably coming for Stephen Curry and Andrew Luck once they get a few more years of greatness under their belts?
Indeed, when you look at the other megastar American athletes of the 21st century, their popularity always seems to reach a sort of saturation point, after which comes the stampede of critics. If we stick to this same criteria of looking at people in the top 10 all-time in their sport with multiple titles, who are either American or playing a sport that is popular in America (in other words, sorry European soccer stars, this ain't about you), almost no one is immune:
Lance Armstrong became the cheater, Kobe Bryant became the me-first ball hog, Floyd Mayweather became the world’s most boring boxer and a symbol of domestic violence, Michael Phelps became a guy who's just kind of a wanker, the Williams sisters became the duo not as utterly obsessed with winning as we wanted them to be, and Tiger Woods became, well, Tiger Woods. All eventually saw the tide turn against them, regardless of whether the criticisms were justified (Mayweather and Armstrong) or flimsy (Phelps and the Williams sisters). It's a treatment that pre-21st century elites like Michael Jordan and Joe Montana never seemed to deal with.
The only present-day superstar to have faded this fate seems to have been Tim Duncan, and you kind of wonder if it’s just because he was so boring that no one noticed him the whole time he was great. Heck, it was really only when he got his fifth championship that most people seemed to figure out that he had won the other four.
And when you add up all the ingredients (historically great + multiple titles + a star here in America + transcends their sport to the point of becoming an A-list celebrity), you end up with someone that gets praised on every single news show, website and magazine. And when that happens, you virtually guarantee we’ll get sick of these guys. After all, you just can’t read 8,000 pieces glowing about how great Brady or James is without getting tired of them.
And maybe it’s like when you meet that amazing person who is utterly perfect. Then you get to know them better and discover the parts of them they didn't show you on the first date. And soon a habit you didn’t even notice becomes grating, and every time they do it, you can’t help but shout inside your head, “Christ, just stop already!”
For decades, we never got to know our celebrities that intimately. They kept their flaws in a closet somewhere. But today we know them so well that we see every single imperfection. And no one looks great under the microscope.
Or maybe the problem is that the critical and cutting tweets are the ones that get rebroadcast. The outraged news hosts are the ones that get the ratings. So more and more people criticize because that’s what gets you heard, and more and more people hear those criticisms because there’s nothing else to listen to.
Or maybe it’s something else. Some other factor that has nothing to do with the 24/7 world of coverage we live in. But ultimately, I suspect it doesn’t have much to do with deflated footballs or The Decision.
In 1987, after being acquitted on charges of fraud and grand larceny, Raymond J. Donovan famously asked, "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?" it's a question Brady fans have undoubtedly been pondering lately. There's only one problem they've been overlooking: It's not totally clear that this is where he lost it.