Tom Brady and the Unlucky Red Cap

Donald Trump's MAGA hat has only gotten more toxic, but Touchdown Tom has outlasted the controversy.

It could be a nice piece of memorabilia.”

That’s what Tom Brady, Super Bowl quarterback, American sports icon, and hydration enthusiast, said more than three years ago now, when he was asked by reporters about the red “Make America Great Again” hat that was observed at his locker a week before.

Brady was right, in part because that statement, back in 2015, covered more ground than he ever possibly could have intended, or anticipated. “Memorabilia”, after all, is a pretty broad term. It can mean, for example, a saxophone played by Bill Clinton and signed by Fleetwood Mac. It can mean a jelly-bean jar from Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Helicopter. It can mean a Bernie Sanders sequined cat pillow, or a Ross Perot campaign squiggle pen.

Or, of course, “memorabilia” can mean something else entirely. Like, for example, the Nazi memorabilia apparently collected by another prominent Boston sports hero, Curt Schilling, who has had a rather, shall we say awkward time explaining it.

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Now comes the part where I should be incredibly clear, and unambiguous, in an effort to preempt any bad faith attacks. No, the Trump MAGA hat is not the same thing as a piece of Nazi regalia, or a white hood, or the fourteen words.

But then again, it’s gotten a lot closer to them then any piece of “memorabilia” should, and if anyone has a hard time admitting that, they should probably ask themselves…

…Why isn’t it sitting in Brady’s locker anymore?


Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student whose encounter with Native American elder Nathan Phillips went viral, was interviewed recently by Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show, and was asked a number of questions. He was asked if he had any regrets over the incident. He was asked what the national attention has been like. He was asked what was going through his mind as he stared and smirked at Phillips. He was asked if he or any of his classmates shouted “Build The Wall’ at any point during the exchange.

And then, towards the end of the segment, at the conclusion of an entire interview meant to investigate his thoughts, his actions, his motivations, Sandmann was finally asked about the most unambiguous message of all.

“Do you think if you weren’t wearing that hat,” asked Guthrie, “This might not have happened, or it might have been different?”

“That hat” is, of course, a rather apt construction, fascinating in how little information it actually offers, and how little it needed to. In the years since it was first spotted in Brady’s locker, the red MAGA hat has taken on a life of its own, and become a touchstone, a marker of a particular type of tribalism, a symbol of a culture war the extends well beyond electoral politics, and into every aspect of American life.

“That hat” was truly all that Guthrie needed, because “that hat” is self-explanatory. It’s a piece of campaign merchandise, a piece of memorabilia, sure, but it is also so much more than that, in ways that the Today Show didn’t even feel the need to unpack. And why would they, knowing that any attempt to explore what “that hat” conveys would be doomed to failure, drowned in a sea of backlash, resentment, and ginned-up outrage. Everyone knows what “that hat” means, and it’s for exactly that reason that nobody dares to talk about it.

Guthrie mentioned, in the piece, that Sandmann said he bought his “Make America Great Again” hat that day, from a street vendor in Washington, DC. Given that Sandmann, and his classmates, were in Washington to attend the anti-abortion “March for Life”, one might logically assume that the hat was meant to signify support for a President that has fallen in line with Republican orthodoxy on the issue, (despite a history of pro-choice statements in his past).

But of course, any attempt to attach the MAGA hat to a particular position falls apart instantly, not unlike any attempt to pin down the political ideology of the man who popularized it. Donald Trump doesn’t actually care about abortion, any more than he cares about small government, trickle-down economics, conservative jurisprudence, or any of the other causes that have animating the Republican Party for decades. The only unifying principle of Trump, now and forever, is Trump, and how smart, and strong, and savvy he is, and how great a job he’s doing, and how people are saying it, more and more, you’re really starting to hear it folks.

It is in this regard that the red MAGA hat, ironically enough, becomes not unlike a piece of sports merchandise, saying very little about who you are, but making it abundantly clear what team you’re on. Of course, when that ‘team’ is defined not by principles, or policies, or ideas, even bad ones, but instead by endless resentment, an undying disdain for ‘the other’, and a compulsive need to malign all those who look, act, or think differently, well, then it becomes rather easy to explain how a bit of white text on a red backdrop becomes a provocation, all to itself.


The red MAGA hat wasn’t quite as toxic, back in 2015, as it is today, given that shit rolls down hill, and it also tends to accumulate, on whatever noxious talismans are available to collect it. After the Muslim Ban, and Charlottesville, and Puerto Rico, and child separation, and “shithole countries”, it’s fair to say that being on the President’s team now carries a deeper, starker, social stigma. Of course, given that the man launched his campaign on the notion of Mexico bringing crime and sending rapists, it’s also fair to say that the hat wasn’t exactly benign either, when it first turned up in Brady’s locker.

That’s probably why, right from the start, the Patriots quarterback had such a challenging time talking about “that hat”, and his relationship with Trump, more broadly. has chronicled all of the times Brady has spoken about him, and the transcripts portray a rather interesting, if not entirely unexpected evolution, from the early days of oh he’s just a golfing buddy to I don’t really pay much attention to politics and of course the ever popular can’t we just talk about football?

There have been those rare occasions when Brady has been forced to engage with the ramifications of his old pal, the President. One came in September of 2017, when Brady noted in a radio interview that he disagreed with Trump’s outspoken criticism of those players that had taken a knee in protest of American racial injustice.

“Yeah, I certainly disagree with what (Trump) said. I thought it was just divisive,” noted Brady, before immediately turtling once more into the most empty pablum possible, “I am never one to say, ‘Oh, that is wrong. That is right.’ I do believe in what I believe in. I believe in bringing people together and respect and love and trust. Those are the values that my parents instilled in me. That is how I try and live every day.”

But for the most part, Brady hasn’t even needed to resort to trite statements of nothingness, because after a while, the questions just stopped coming. The week leading up to the Super Bowl is routinely the most contrived, saturated, overwrought media spectacle in sports, with networks and podcasts and websites all desperately in search of any sort of storyline, and yet no-one made any attempt to ask the most famous athlete in the league about his connection to the most famous person in the world.

Tom Brady appears to have successfully executed the strategy of simply outlasting the outrage, and a cynical observer might even believe that he took a few lessons on the subject from Trump himself. None of the various grotesqueries of his administration have really ended, after all, or been rectified in any real way. Family separation has proceeded, on a smaller scale, even as the damage from its mass rollout persists. Trump produced a big stack of paper and waved his hand at the notion of conflict of interest from the beginning of his Presidency, and the self-dealing has continued apace ever since. The cabinet is as stocked with penny-ante grifters and outright incompetents as it ever was. Our sitting President remains an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal crime, and just recently presided over the longest, most destructive government shutdown in our nation’s history, for no reason, and to no tangible purpose whatsoever.

If the past few years have proven anything, it’s that our capacity for anger is finite. Let enough time pass, and the current furor will simply be swept away by the next one. It’s the operating principle of the Trump presidency, and while the stakes may be far lower, it’s also the way in which Brady has been able to avoid ever having to fully answer for the “piece of memorabilia” that turned up in his locker some years ago.


Much as it pains my life-long Jet fan heart to have to admit this, I don’t actually think Tom Brady is a malicious person. I don’t think he’d actually approve of this administration’s wanton cruelty to immigrant families seeking refuge. I don’t think a man who’s spent 20 years building relationships in an NFL locker room is motivated by racial animus, and so I doubt he’d care for Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” rhetoric. I don’t, in general, see any reason why Brady would support the corruption, the grift, the policies designed, in a time of unspeakable inequality, to make it even more difficult for the vast majority of our society, the ones who don’t have pro contracts and endorsement deals, to simply get by.

I believe Tom Brady when he says he doesn’t pay much attention to politics, because Tom Brady doesn’t have to. Trump may have declared his candidacy by the time that cheap red hat found its way into Brady’s locker, but he wasn’t a politician to Touchdown Tom, not really. He wasn’t the guy who’d chosen to build his campaign around the worst human impulses. He wasn’t the lifelong incompetent who’d failed upwards through the entirety of his existence. He wasn’t the carny barker who would eventually accelerate the degradation of our society into the mind-melting dystopia we now see before us.

No, to Tom Brady, Donald Trump was just another rich guy who wanted to kiss his ass and play golf. Of course he was! That’s everyone that Tom Brady has even interacted with since, oh, probably 2003 or so. Privilege isn’t just about wealth, or security. It’s also about what you do and don’t have to care about. And Tom Brady? All he’s got to pay attention to, from now until age 45, apparently, are crossing routes, pliability, and which rich putz he’s got to shake hands with that day.

Donald Trump was once one of those putzes, and I suspect that if Tom Brady could go back in time, (something that his quack doctor may well be exploring), he’d prefer to avoid him altogether. He’d probably steer clear of a man who would move from tacky reality television star to genuine threat to American democracy, and I’m quite certain he’d never put that red MAGA hat on display publicly, in his locker, or anywhere else. Who needs the hassle, you know? No piece of “memorabilia” is worth that.

That’s the thing about novelties, sometimes. They don’t mean much, until they mean everything, and at that point it might be too late. We were all Tom Brady once, (well, without the bank account and the supermodel wife), chuckling about the deep-fried huckster who fired people from television, and said “YUGE” a lot. Then we looked up, and President Patriot was fanning the flames of the conflagration we’d been ignoring for decades.

So, no, all these years later, Tom Brady still doesn’t really have much in the way of an explanation.

But then again, neither do we.

Alex Goot
Alex Goot
Alexander Goot is a sports television producer and occasional freelance writer. He still believes in Linsanity, Chad Pennington, and the New York Mets, but he will never embrace the designated hitter


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