The political firestorm that has dogged Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office didn’t stop for the Super Bowl.
A clean split between play and politics was near impossible this year, given that key members of the Patriots—including star quarterback Tom Brady, heach coach Bill Belichick, and team owner Robert Kraft—have publicly supported Donald Trump.
The team’s Super Bowl bid against the Atlanta Falcons even received the President’s blessing in an interview aired just hours before the big game. Speaking to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump called Brady his “friend” and predicted New England would win by eight points.
When the Patriots turned back a first half twenty-five-point deficit in the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, Trump was gleeful, tweeting, “What an amazing comeback and win by the Patriots. Tom Brady, Bob Kraft and Coach B are total winners. Wow!”
For some commentators, this year’s game was a reminder that, sports are inherently political, especially when so many athletes are African-American but owners and managers are overwhelmingly white.
Writing in The Root, Jason Johnson argued that cheering on the Patriots is inseparable from supporting Trump: “Under a president who brags about bigotry and a team whose leaders openly associate with him, there is no separation of your values from who you root for this Sunday.”
Progressive sports columnist Dave Zirin lambasted Brady in The Nation, writing, “The most successful quarterback in the NFL is being willingly used as a way to deodorize an agenda animated by division and hatred.”
Before the game, hundreds gathered outside NRG Stadium to protest the President’s policies. Immigration activists, Black Lives Matter, environmentalists, local Democrats, and others joined forces in a two-mile march to the stadium, some holding signs that condemned both Trump and Brady, amid the bustle of tens of thousands of fans packing into the stadium and milling about for the annual bacchanal.
Some Trump resistors also took to social media to protest, taking up Atlanta’s #Riseup hashtag to criticize Trump and cheer on the Falcons.
To protest halftime performer Lady Gaga, tens of thousands of Trump supporters flooded Twitter with words of encouragement for the President, using the hashtag #Pray4DJT. There were rumors the pop artist might make a political statement during her show, but her high energy performance wove in only a few subtle political messages.
That Houston played host city this year resonated on multiple levels. “The Big Heart” is part of a county that resettles more refugees than any American city, and in recent days hundreds of people have packed into the local airport to protest Trump’s Muslim ban.
Texas is also in the midst of a fierce sanctuary battle: Republican Governor Greg Abbott stripped Travis County of $1.5 million in state funding after the new sheriff recently implemented a policy limiting cooperation with immigration authorities.
This year’s Super Bowl ads gave much to talk about on the political front, especially immigration. Trending number two on Twitter for much of the night was 84 Lumber, a building supplies company that claims it was forced by the Fox network to alter an ad by removing shots of a border wall from video depicting a Mexican mother and daughter on a journey to the United States.
The original ending showing the pair face-to-face with a wall was changed in the version that aired Sunday to depict a less-ominous barbed wired fence, and ended with mother and child holding hands. Across the screen viewers are prompted to visit the company's website, where they can see the new ending as well as the original. On Sunday night, the company’s website crashed amid a flurry of web traffic.
Budweiser also dipped its toe into the political waters, offering an ad depicting its cofounder Adolphus Busch on a journey to the United States from his native Germany, including a scene in which he’s told to “go back home.” The ad sparked boycott threats. AirBnB surprised the public with a last-minute addition showing a montage of faces of different racial and ethnic backgrounds as part of its #WeAccept campaign, an apparent response to Trump’s immigration orders.
The Patriots won, but the bigger battle is not over.