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There are some calls that are obvious. That doesn’t make them any less significant.
Citing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week that left five people dead and our democracy shaken, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick announced Monday that he will not accept the Medal of Freedom. While putting country first might not seem particularly noble, it’s more than NFL owners and the league have done.
A lot of members of Congress, too.
“I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy,” Belichick said in a statement, reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Belichick is one of the shrewdest coaches there is, with six Super Bowl titles to prove it. (He has another two from his days as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants.) He had to know both that President Donald Trump was trying to use the Medal of Freedom presentation as a smokescreen, and that his reputation would never recover if he went along with it.
Imagine trying to explain himself to his players, about 70% of whom are Black. Belichick would never again be able to command the respect of his locker room, and the tight-fisted control he has wielded so successfully for more than two decades would evaporate.
This isn’t simply a matter of differing opinions. Athletes and coaches navigate those all the time, and Belichick’s past support of Trump is hardly a secret. Nor is the fact some NFL owners have been among Trump’s most ardent backers – which might explain the deafening silence of both the league and team owners.
But this is no longer about politics. The invasion of the Capitol on Wednesday, and the reluctance of some of our leaders to condemn it, has damaged the very foundation of this country.
The images of mostly white Trump supporters vandalizing the Capitol, beating a police officer as he lay face-down and threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are horrifying. That it was incited by the president, because he simply cannot bear the idea that he lost the election, is appalling.
A majority of Americans want Trump removed from office, even if there are only a few more days until Joe Biden is inaugurated. Corporations are rushing to distance themselves both from Trump and the toadies still doing his bidding. It is not a time for smiling photo ops.
The Medal of Freedom is this country’s highest civilian honor, previously awarded to American icons such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. No doubt Belichick would have been proud to accept it under different circumstances.
But to do so now would be seen as an expression of support for Trump and his monstrous actions, and that association would taint Belichick forever. It also would make a farce of the NFL’s social justice efforts, including the $95 million in grants the league awarded just last week – a point not lost on Belichick.
“One of the most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions,” he said in his statement. “Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweighs the benefits of any individual award.”
Belichick is not a man of many words. But with this principled stand, he spoke volumes. If only others – in the NFL, in Congress – had the courage to do the same.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.