This letter originally appeared two years ago, in January, 2017, shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and just before Super Bowl LI, which saw the New England Patriots come back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime. Since then, the Patriots have been back to the Super Bowl twice now, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles last year despite a record 505 passing yards from Tom Brady, before returning to face the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday. Donald Trump is also still president. (Jan. 30, 2019)
Dear Robert Kraft,
My father was born on the North Shore and grew up, like you, loving the Boston Patriots. When he moved to central Virginia, where I’m from, he brought his fandom with him. When I was a kid, by some miracle of the Shenandoah airwaves, my father was able to tune his Panasonic radio to the AM station out of Boston, which we listened to while muting the television in our playroom. Steve Grogan, Stanley Morgan, Russ Francis, Mosi Tatupu, and John Hannah were all formative icons to me. I don’t own the team, but the Patriots still mean a lot to me. As you told Yeshiva University in a moving commencement speech last year, people “want to feel connected to something larger than themselves, where there is a pride in an important mission, where there is a leadership, where people stay together during the hard times, where your life is not only about you, it’s about your real contribution to this larger cause.”
In Virginia, our neighbors rooted for the Redskins, but my father never forgave the old NFL for its haughty snub of the upstart AFL. He also never forgave George Preston Marshall for resisting African-American players’ integration in the league. He hated the mean-spirited politics of the Allens, father and son. He never saw sports teams as divorced from the political context in which they played, and—like your father, who left you an ethical will—he taught me that teams should be judged not just by their success on the field, but by the character of their players, and of their owners. I think this is in part because, like some other Jewish kids, he lacked athletic talent. (The Patriots were also in need of any excuse back then, playing just one home playoff game in 34 years, a blowout loss to Earl Campbell’s Oilers.) But I also like to think this is what young Jewish boys in Brookline, Swampscott, Lynn, Worcester, Dorchester, and elsewhere around Boston were taught by their rabbis and their lower-middle-class parents: Who you are, how you carry yourself, matters as much as what you achieve. Winning is nice, but winning doesn’t get you into heaven.
When you emerged from the Patriots’ ownership fracas of the early 1990s, it was thrilling, because we knew that your Brookline Jewish roots and uncommon personal connection to the team as a fan—“sitting there in the stands, I would dream of what our family would do if we only had a chance to own the team,” you told Yeshiva University—would bring back the credibility we had so painfully surrendered in the 1986 drubbing at the hands of The Fridge and Richard Dent’s Bears. You hired Belichick, and you stuck with him, and we all know what has happened since.
You know that people like you and I don’t take the team’s remarkable two-decade run of success for granted. Despite pressure from morally-minded friends who complain that pro football viewership is complicit in a kind of brain murder, I watch your team now because I understand I am witnessing a great artist and his scholar-coach perform feats of grace and beauty. The game and its rules allow them to transcend. And if the Patriots were terrible again, like they were when I was growing up, I’d still watch. Even the heartbreak is sublime in its own way, part of the great reckoning of achievement, which cannot be attained without setback or suffering. For every Helmet Catch, a Tuck Rule. For every Eli Manning, a Malcolm Butler. For every Mo Lewis, a Brady.
Throughout it all, you’ve carried yourself with grace and dignity. I’ve seen you call us all Patriots, with what looked like real belief in the healing powers of patriotism and genuine concern for the integrity of our nation, after Sept. 11. I’ve seen you sweetly kiss both cheeks of 325-lb. Vince Wilfork, even after you cut him from the team. I’ve watched you manage a labor dispute with what seemed to be great equanimity and fairness. I’ve seen you shed tears in public, genuine tears of love and grief, after the death of the woman you called “my sweetheart,” too painful was it to say her name, Myra.
So, may I catalog the things that are confusing to me, and I suspect a large segment of your Massachusetts and liberal fandom? Leaving aside the incongruity of “grab ’em by the pussy” side-by-side with your devotion to Myra, who once forced you to relinquish a fifth-round draft pick because he turned out to have a documented history of violence against women—you really believe in this man, our president? Explain to us what we’re missing. We’re listening.
First, denial of facts and the dismissal of credible science was at the heart of the unfair persecution of your star QB. The Ideal Gas Law was your best defense, so much so that you did what the media is now forced to do on a daily basis in response to the chaotic lies of the administration you openly support: Represent the facts. And you found you were forced to do this in opposition to “alternate facts”—half-truths and falsehoods—that Roger Goodell’s NFL was peddling. You created a special website just to counter the NFL’s willful ignorance of facts, and only gave up a court battle over those facts and the reach of authoritarianism once the cost outweighed the potential benefits. Now you support an administration that wants to gag scientists and invent its own reality? That settles disputes almost exactly as Goodell settled his with you: by pouring money into suits until the one with the shallower pockets quits? That makes no sense.
Myra’s father was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who had served as a circuit judge of the court of Lithuania before emigrating in 1935; his family members died in the Holocaust. Your ancestors, like those of many of the observant Orthodox Jewish families in Brookline, arrived in America fleeing religious persecution. The lessons of the Holocaust were ingrained in you through your Jewish education. Now you support an administration that wishes to close our borders to the innocent children of Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere? That makes no sense.
You are a longtime supporter of Israel. As many NFL fans know, you sponsor the Israeli Football League, which plays its Israel Bowl in Kraft Stadium. You make frequent visits to the Holy Land and bring players and executives of all faiths with you. You and Myra sponsored young Jews’ first encounters with Israel. On policy matters, you may not have liked Barack Obama’s approach to Israel or the Middle East. He and his secretaries of state may have exposed the Jewish State to the possibility of a future nuclear-armed Iran, intent on fulfilling its stated goal of the annihilation of Israel. Obama had a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose policies were too far to the right for his taste. I understand your frustration, but I wonder: Is Donald Trump really the best thing for the Jewish State? I’m willing to be persuaded, but could you make the case publicly, so we know what you seem to know about Trump and the Middle East that the rest of us here are confused about? So far, he and his advisers have been notably inarticulate about what it means to be a “friend of Israel.” So, it makes no sense.
Most of all, you believe in winning: real winning, not fake winning. Your coach makes clear that the way to prevail in contests is by minimizing distractions, not sowing them. Concentrate on the work of it, not the show. When you do win, thank everyone besides yourself who made it possible. When you lose, don’t lay blame. Recognize that victories are always won by teams and that the essence of graciousness is humility. And yet now you support a man whose campaign rhetoric includes, “I alone can fix it”? Whose vanity can’t seem to get over the fact that his inauguration crowds were smaller than someone else’s? Who spent years questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s citizenship instead of competing honestly with him in the political arena, over ideas? That makes no sense.
Trump’s campaign adviser, Kellyanne Conway, has praised your star quarterback for braving “verbal shrapnel” in maintaining the loyalty of his friendship with the president. I, too, have some friends who are loyal assholes, and I’ll probably stick with them. But they are not the leader of the free world. Even Brady has said about the president that “if you know someone it doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say or they do,” allowing for a difference in the political and the private. To be clear, I don’t care how you or he voted. I agree with Brady that voting is a personal matter; you are welcome to vote for whomever you choose. But, Bob, you’ve appeared at Trump Tower and made public your friendship with the new president in a way that Brady has not. You sat on the dais at his inauguration and attended his pre-inaugural ball. So you’ve aligned yourself politically in a way that seems to run counter to your past contributions (more than $70,000 to Obama; tens of thousands to congressional Democrats over this past decade), and to the wide-reaching philanthropic legacy of both you and your late wife. Which is why none of this makes sense.
It’s not too late, Bob. Your mother, Sarah, taught you ein ra beli tov: “There’s no bad that doesn’t have some good attached to it.” Super Bowl media week is as large a bullhorn as you will ever have. You have said that the most important part about owning the Patriots is that it allows you and your family to do tikkun olam. Come out and say it clearly to everyone in America and around the world:
“I was friends with Donald Trump before he became president, and I value my friendships. He contributed to shepherding me through a dark time of grief. He will remain my friend, and I his, because I am loyal. But I cannot stand by and allow him to make the kind of reckless moves that have already done so much damage to the country I love, and to its great democracy. As a Jew, I disagree with his positions on immigration. As a man, and as Myra’s widower, I abhor his disrespect of women. As an avowed lover of Israel, I understand that someone so ignorant of history, so unschooled in diplomacy, and so apparently unwilling to take wise counsel can only do harm in such a volatile region.
“And as the owner of a team that wins—and wins the right way, through discipline, dedication, teamwork, humility, focus, athleticism, and intellect—I am ashamed of our president’s boasting, his preening, his whining, and his hollow victories: ‘winning’ by dividing; ‘winning’ the election but losing the popular vote; ‘winning’ at business by bankrupting casinos, stiffing laborers; ‘winning’ by cheating people out of their tuitions to a fake university. None of this is real winning, despite the accumulation of power, which is why I must distance myself and my football team, even as it prepares for a Super Bowl, from the president of the United States. I hope his other friends, like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, once their game is over, will also stand up to oppose whatever policies are counter to their own values, and that through the influence of his only true friends, Donald Trump will change, for the better of our country.”
Then, us lifelong fans can watch Brady and Belichick and a cast of devoted and hard-working athletes compete—win or lose—for a fifth championship trophy, and be proud of you, and of your franchise, and revel in the glory and beauty of sports, unblemished by the stain of a great ugliness.
Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.