I hope everyone saw the wry smile on Tom Brady’s face when, earlier this week, sympathetic interview partner Jim Gray pitched him a soft-toss question about the Patriots’ lack of appreciation for all of the quarterback’s accomplishments.
He turned to the audience like a sitcom actor and delivered the scripted line—“I plead…the fifth!”—with the same dead-inside gusto of a late-career Jaleel White doing Steve Urkel. It was planned. He wanted to send a message, whatever that may be. Whatever he’s afraid to just come out and say.
I hope, too, that everyone noticed during Super Bowl week when Brady was asked a question about his then-injured throwing hand and did a double-take at the specialized Under Armor glove providing some mystical healing powers before the game. I can only imagine the brief moment of panic when he forgot to wedge the sales pitch into an earlier portion of that answer, and the relief that came when his sponsor was plugged to the hundreds of thousands watching for news about his health.
Athletes using their time in front of the camera to capitalize financially on private endeavors or send a message to ownership is nothing new—it’s one of the most functional ways to supplement the unpredictable contract lifestyle or resolve an in-house squabble. Seeing football and basketball players who get paid by a website to send “unfiltered,” newsy messages directly to fans is a beautiful thing; a mastery of sports media capitalism. Watching them subtly complain about contracts is entertaining and, depending on the situation, understandable.
But it feels like listening to Brady when talking about anything has reached the point of diminishing return. His revealing documentary was essentially a long commercial for his lifestyle brand. Almost every interview dovetails into the benefits of his tomato-free existence, with the charge of entry being a $200 cookbook and a $50 pouch of energizing birdseed. Every instance of him on a television feels like a door-to-door salesman has somehow made it inside my living room and is preparing to ask me for money. And when he’s not selling us something, he’s here to make sure we’re on his side of the NFL’s dumbest chicken-or-the-egg argument about Brady and Bill Belichick. This pathetic snowball fight between quarterback and coach has lingered since a decisive, well-reported ESPN feature about their internal discord ran last season.
There comes a time in every great athlete’s lifecycle where they’re plucked from the crowd and placed in a vacuum. This is no different for actors, writers, singers and CEOs. They start to feel like any breadcrumbs they throw their followers constitute a special treat. With isolation comes an odd sensitivity; a strange new perspective on the people who genuinely love and appreciate your gifts.
I don’t blame Brady for viewing the rest of us as marks, or as weight on his side of the scale. That’s entirely within his right and if any of us had the same gravitational pull or grandiose star power, we’d all be susceptible to a similar departure from reality. Is it disappointing that his last real interview may have been more than a year ago after New England’s thrilling comeback win over the Falcons with Peter King on this very website? Sure. Is our preference for athletes to grow old and pursue individual interests a certain way selfish? Absolutely.
So here we are at a strange type of crossroads. We can choose to hang on his every word, take the bait and buy the armbands, the energy squares and the performance meals. We can choose to accept his version of the truth, decoding every press conference to get his message out, only to print his giddy denial when he’s asked if there’s really something going on.
Or, we can finally detach and unplug. In that world, Brady is simply a transcendent football player—quite possibly the best of all time—leading a masterful scheme to which he is codependent. It’s acceptable and digestible. In that way, we are following Brady’s lifestyle advice. To quote him during that interview with King back in 2017: “You start giving your power away to other people, it’s a tough life.”