- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ready to take a break from politics with a little football this weekend? As if.

Super Bowls tend to generate controversy, whether it’s Joe Namath guaranteeing a win, halftime shows gone awry or commercials pushing the bounds of good taste.

But, thanks to one “Make America Great Again” hat, this Sunday’s New England Patriots-Atlanta Falcons contest isn’t just the NFL’s championship game — it’s the latest battleground for a rancorous, bitter national political debate over the presidency of Donald Trump.

The pro-Trump hat in question was spotted in Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s locker shortly after the New York billionaire announced in 2015 he would run for the presidency, and it’s been an issue for the league’s most successful quarterback since. Despite the hat, Brady didn’t officially endorse the then-candidate’s bid for the White House. But his acknowledged friendship with Mr. Trump hasn’t sat well with many in the sporting world, Trump critics in the press, or those leading the anti-Trump protest movement.

The Patriots’ connection with Mr. Trump — owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick have also been asked to defend their friendships with the president — has been as big a Super Bowl storyline this week as the Falcons’ stunning run through the playoffs, the coaching matchups or New England’s legacy (this is the franchise’s record ninth appearance in the game).

Brady, already tied for the most Super Bowl victories for a quarterback with four, would see his own place in NFL history cemented Sunday with a fifth win. But on Monday, when the 39-year-old quarterback faced the press at the annual Super Bowl media scrum, the biggest questions were about politics.

One sportswriter wrote this week that Brady should either “disavow” Mr. Trump or come clean and “own” his tacit endorsement of Trump policies.

One Georgia writer wrote that Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback who kneeled or sat on the sidelines during performances of the national anthem this past season, was more patriotic than Brady. The New England quarterback’s refusal to talk about politics, Morehouse College professor David Dennis Jr. wrote, smacks of “white privilege.”

Another sportswriter called Brady — a sure-fire Hall of Famer who’s been sacked 473 times over almost two decades in the league — a “coward.”

For his part, Brady has acknowledged he and Mr. Trump are “golfing buddies,” but says that doesn’t mean he agrees with his policies.

In a recent appearance on the Boston-based “Kirk and Callahan” radio show, Brady asked, “Why such a big deal? If you know someone, it doesn’t mean that you agree with everything that they say or do, right?”

On Tuesday he defended his decision to focus on football as his team prepared for the season’s biggest game.

“I have a right to stay out of it,” Brady. “I want to keep my focus on where it should be for me at this moment … I don’t want to bring any distractions to our team. I don’t want to bring any negativity to our team. We have enough of that as it is.”

The partisan anger focused on Sunday’s game came as a surprise to some, even in the politically steeped environs of hyper-partisan Washington.

“Can we pls stop politicizing everything? (We came to the sports pgs to escape a politics-centric view of everything),” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse tweeted.

“No, Senator. No we cannot,” one critic tweeted back. “Everything is politics.”

“Everything” may be an overstatement, but there’s no denying that frustration over the outcome of November’s presidential election has taken on an outsized role in Houston, the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Brady and his Patriots teammates, who enjoyed a raucous send-off from thousands of well-wishers crammed into Boston’s NRG Plaza on Monday, arrived in Texas to crowds of sign-waving anti-Trump protesters angry about the president’s immigration rules and eager to take advantage of the media spotlight.

The politicization of the NFL’s showcase event — a made-for-television spectacle that is dependably the world’s most watched program every year — apparently created enough concern that league officials scrubbed almost all references to questions about Trump from press conference transcripts. According to The New York Times, the league, in trying to avoid controversy, had erected a “virtual wall” around the Patriots and the topic of Mr. Trump.

But while most of the Patriots and the NFL tried to avoid politics, others stepped into the fray with purpose.

Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, the international beer conglomerate that owns the Budweiser brand, is spending several million to air a Super Bowl ad that’s been interpreted as a slap at the Trump administration and its immigration policies.

Titled “Born the Hard Way,” the commercial depicts founder Adolphus Busche’s struggles upon arriving in America from Germany in the 1800s, especially with anti-immigrant Americans.

And fans of Lady Gaga, the Hillary Clinton- and LGBT-supporting superstar who is doing the halftime show, expect the performer to take a stand against President Trump, no matter what the singer’s managers and the NFL say.

One day after the election, the singer was protesting Mr. Trump’s win, holding a “Love trumps hate” sign while standing in front of Trump Tower.

She will now have 12 minutes to perform in front of a global audience.

Entertainment Weekly reported this week the NFL has specifically told Lady Gaga not to make any sort of political statement during the halftime show, though NFL spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz dismissed the story.

“This is unsourced nonsense from people trying to stir up controversy where there is none,” Ms. Ravitz said. “Lady Gaga is focused on putting together an amazing show for fans and we love working with her on it; we aren’t going to be distracted by this.”

The controversial performer, who infamously took the stage at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards in a dress made of meat, promised a show that celebrates “inclusion” and the “spirit of equality,” according to the Associated Press.

“This performance is for everyone. I want to, more than anything, create a moment that everyone that’s watching will never forget,” she said at a news conference Thursday in Houston.

For still others, the prospect of Lady Gaga setting off a mid-game social media rant from a president with notoriously hair-trigger Twitter fingers is an opportunity to have a little fun — and make a little cash at the same time.

Las Vegas is offering the opportunity to bet on the timing and topics the president is most likely to tweet about during the game.

And , in a sign of the times, bettors can also put their money down on controversy. There’s a bet available on who, if anyone, on either team, will kneel during country singer Luke Bryan’s rendition of the national anthem.

On the two rosters, only the Patriots’ Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett exercised their right to protest during the season — and Bennett, one of Brady’s favorite targets, has shown he is not been shy about taking a political stand.

He told reporters recently that if the Patriots win on Sunday, don’t look for him at the traditional congratulatory White House ceremony — not with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. He later tweeted, “America was built on inclusiveness not exclusiveness.”

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