There couldn’t be a more perfect ending to the NFL’s season of political controversy

Bill Belichick, Donald Trump, and Robert Kraft. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • In an NFL season rife with politics, the Super Bowl features a matchup of two of the more political teams.
  • The New England Patriots have extensive organizational ties to President Donald Trump.
  • Then there are the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that has multiple players who have led the national anthem protest efforts.

An NFL season rife with politics from the start is set to be capped by a Super Bowl in which the participants occupy clear spots on either side of the political spectrum.

On one side are the New England Patriots, the sports franchise most closely tied to President Donald Trump. On the other are the Philadelphia Eagles, with multiple players who represented the other side of Trump’s months-long crusade against the NFL.

As the league entered the third week of its four-month regular season schedule, Trump waded into what was a growing controversy – players kneeling during the national anthem prior to the start of games.

Wouldn’t it be nice if owners said, “Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out,” Trump said of players who kneel during a September rally in Alabama.

Trump doubled and tripled down in the coming days and weeks, turned the NFL into a hot-button political issue. Players, owners, league officials, and fans were in many cases pitted against each other.

Meanwhile, the original intent of the anthem protests became overshadowed by Trump. Beginning in 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the anthem to highlight police brutality and the mistreatment of black Americans by the criminal justice system. Kaepernick became a divisive figure as a result, but the story of the anthem protests exploded tenfold once the sitting president decided to take aim.

Trump’s team

The perennial champion Patriots feature star quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft, who have all flattered Trump since he began his bid for the White House in 2015. At the pinnacle, during a New Hampshire rally just days prior to the presidential election, Trump read a letter written to him by Belichick, praising the then-Republican presidential nominee.

“Congratulations on a tremendous campaign,” Belichick wrote. “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully – beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing.”

At the same time, Kraft was attesting to Trump’s character. More recently, he called Trump to thank him for passing the Republican tax plan.

And Brady for years has been close with Trump, famously sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker at one point during the presidential campaign.

But Brady did not join the team for its trip to the White House to celebrate last season’s Super Bowl victory, and both he and Belichick have been more quiet about Trump since his comments about the anthem protests.

The three all subtly criticised at Trump after those remarks. Kraft, who was one of seven NFL owners to donate at least $US1 million to Trump, said he was “deeply disappointed” in the comments, while Brady called them “divisive.” After more than a dozen Patriots took a knee during the anthem after Trump’s comments and were subsequently booed by Patriots fans, Belichick released a statement expressing his “immense respect and admiration for our players.”

‘Are you kidding me?’

The upstart Eagles have been at the forefront of the anthem debate. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is the leading figure of the NFL Players Coalition, which lobbied Capitol Hill on criminal justice reform and won concessions from the league related to the protests. Linebacker Chris Long, who was a member of the Patriots last season and skipped the White House visit, donated his entire base salary to charity and won praise from former President Barack Obama.

Long said earlier this week that he would skip the White House visit again if the Eagles win.

“Are you kidding me?” he said when asked if he’d go.

The Eagles offered swift responses after Trump’s September statement.

Malcolm Butler and Chris Long
Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long. Mitchell Leff/Getty

Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said following a September game that “nothing he ever says surprises you.”

“You can’t do that. He’s very divisive. I don’t know who runs his Twitter handle, but it’s really all be through social media, a lot of the stupid things he says. It’s sad for our country,” he said.

As the head of the Players Coalition, Jenkins was on the front lines of the anthem debate. He raised his fist during the anthem in October and November, becoming an iconic image of the 2017 NFL season. He and the coalition have met with all sorts of leaders in the criminal justice arena – including police, lawyers, and lawmakers – while visiting prisons and courts.

He ended his protests after the league agreed to invest $US89 million in causes the coalition backed.

“The goal is not to make everyone comfortable and happy,” Jenkins told The New York Times. As players, we had “to understand the noise is just part of the deal, and if you’re going to get involved, you have to be tough enough to ignore that, and eventually our words and actions will answer all the questions people have.”

Right now, everyone loves the Eagles

A Marist College poll showed both Democrats and Republicans – and even Trump supporters – favour the Eagles over the Patriots. That’s likely a factor of the Patriots playing in their ninth Super Bowl since the start of the millennium, while the Eagles have never won the big game.

Marist found that 45% of Democrats are cheering for the Eagles, while 27% are rooting for the Patriots. Among Republicans, that number dips to 36% for the Eagles and 30% for the Patriots. Trump supporters support the Eagles at a 35-to-30 clip.

While Trump made his presence well known as a looming figure over the NFL season, he will be the first president in more than a decade to not participate in a pregame interview.

And asked Friday to pick a Super Bowl winner, Trump punted.