HOUSTON — The NFL seems to have built a virtual wall around the New England Patriots when it comes to public discussion of two lightning-rod topics for the team: President Donald Trump (a friend of the team’s owner, coach and star quarterback) and Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, who punished the team after a cheating investigation.
At “Opening Night” on Monday, ahead of the Super Bowl, hundreds of reporters peppered members of the team with all manner of questions, including what they thought of Trump and Goodell.
But when the NFL posted transcripts of the interviews with members of the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, there were almost no references to Trump or Goodell.
Reporters were certainly curious, given the nation’s political climate and the controversy over the suspension of the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, for four games as a result of the “Deflategate” scandal, in which the league said he conspired to manipulate footballs to his advantage in a conference championship game two years ago.
Brady, coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ owner, Robert K. Kraft, also happen to be friends of the president, whose actions, including his temporary ban on refugees and restrictions on immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries, have been highly controversial.
Of the transcripts provided for the interviews with 26 of the Patriots players and coaches, the word “Trump” does not appear in any of them, and the word “president” appears only in reference to team presidents, despite reporters’ having asked about them. The word “Goodell” appears once.
The league had little to fear. As he often does when confronted with hot-button issues, Belichick said that he wanted to talk only about football. Brady was asked about Trump three times and Goodell four times, and he sidestepped the questions each time.
“I’m not talking politics at all,” Brady said after being asked about his relationship with the president. When asked why, he added, “I just want to focus on the positive aspects of this game and my teammates and the reasons why we’re here.”
Brady was also asked about the possibility of receiving the Vince Lombardi Trophy from Goodell if the Patriots were to win the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“I’m not worried about the postgame or anything like that,” he said. “I just want to go out there and do great during the game.”
Belichick, who is often gruff with reporters, batted away questions about the president.
“I’m focused on our team and for getting ready for Sunday,” he said, lips clenched.
A spokesman for the NFL, Brian McCarthy, said the transcripts of the one-hour media sessions, which are typically compiled by public-relations staff from the teams involved, were not intended to be a complete account of the interviews. Rather, the league tries to provide the highlights as quickly as possible to the 2,000 or so members of the media credentialed for the Super Bowl.
“There’s no editing of these quotes by the person who is transcribing nor by the league office,” McCarthy said.
The league has sanitized its Super Bowl transcripts in past years, too. Two years ago, for instance, the league’s transcript of interviews with the Seattle Seahawks’ outspoken cornerback, Richard Sherman, did not include his answers to questions about Kraft or about Goodell and his handling of the domestic violence case involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
The fact that the NFL does not even acknowledge these questions and their anodyne answers underscores the lengths it will go not to offend its fans.
Its striving for a neutral stance on thorny political questions is in contrast to the National Basketball Association, which in recent years has taken open stances against perceived attacks on LGBT rights and Trump’s temporary ban on refugees.
Prominent NBA stars including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have also shared their opinions on topics of the day. The abiding culture in the NFL, and football more broadly, though, dictates that players look inward to the team and do as little as possible to stand out off the field. That is one reason the public reaction was so heated when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, chose not to stand for the national anthem to highlight the issue of police brutality.
Football players, of course, have plenty of opinions. But in the media swirl of the Super Bowl, only a handful of players will venture to share them, and many of them are shared only when a reporter happens to include them in an article. That is because the league only transcribes interviews with the 10 players or coaches that each team places at designated podiums and a handful of players who mill around.
Martellus Bennett, the Patriots’ loquacious and talented tight end, had perhaps the most pointed response of the evening when asked whether he would visit the White House if the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
“Most likely not,” he told a reporter from The Detroit Free Press. “Because I don’t support the person in it.”