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HOUSTON — On Super Bowl Opening Night, the Patriots and Falcons fielded questions from reporters, stand-up comedians and Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles. They submitted to pop quizzes about Lady Gaga lyrics and autographed plastic cheeseburgers. They talked about the big game in reverential tones.
And when Tom Brady was asked a President Trump-related question, he said, “What’s going on in the world? I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
That evasive, conflict-averse answer stayed with me. It was still there when I left Minute Maid Park and checked my phone for the latest news. Moments earlier, Trump had fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates. It seemed like the country was slouching toward a constitutional crisis. But in downtown Houston, I saw sidewalks filled with fans in football jerseys, VIP caravans led by police escorts and buildings festooned with all kinds of NFL promotion. Clearly, the party was just getting started.
“What’s going on in the world? I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback
What’s going on in the world? Well, that depends on whether you’re inside or outside the Super Bowl bubble.
This week, I’ve spent a lot of time inside the Super Bowl bubble. It’s a place where, if your team is in the big game and you’re in Houston, then all’s right with the world. It’s a place where NFL fan events provide ample distraction from executive orders. It’s a place where, with a straight face, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can say that there’s no Deflategate-related awkwardness between him and the Patriots.
Between fireworks, music blasting from downtown’s Discovery Green and interview transcripts that don’t include Trump-focused questions and answers, Houston feels like an alternate reality. It's a land in which Brady’s brand of blinders-on positivity can thrive, and the NFL brand can shine. A land where all controversy is effectively banned, including even speaking of bans.
Consider this exchange between Brady and former teammate and NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest:
McGinest: Did Trump call you? I’m joking. Don’t answer that question.
Brady: Not you. You’re the ones that are not supposed to ask those questions.
Making his seventh trip to the Super Bowl, Brady knows the bubble well and embraces it. Maybe hardened sports writers might pester him about Trump, but not a former teammate employed by the league-owned network. Yet, let’s not forget that the interest in the Brady-Trump friendship started when a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat was spotted in the quarterback’s locker in September 2015.
Then, there was Goodell’s state-of-the-league press conference, the one suspiciously moved from its traditional Friday timeslot to Wednesday, when fewer reporters are in town. During the proceedings, one journalist asked where the league stood on the the president's immigration ban and whether the commissioner felt current political events were overshadowing the Super Bowl. Goodell said, “We’re aware of the conversations that are going on and the division. As commissioner of the NFL, I’m singularly focused on the Super Bowl right now. We have a unique position to have an event on Sunday that will bring the world together.”
At least Brady and Goodell can agree on one thing: When it comes to politics, evasive positivity is the way to go.
Meanwhile, Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu knew being Muslim would lead to Opening Night questions about the immigration executive order. He didn’t want to wade in too deeply and said only, “It’s a very tough situation, and I just pray that us as a country and a world can be united as one. It’s really hard for me to talk about this right now. It would take a lot of time so I just want to focus on the game and focus on football.” Asked again about his religion and the ban on immigration, Sanu told reporters, “I have tremendous love for your guys, but I am here to talk about football and playing against the Patriots.”
I get it. There is a big game to focus on, the biggest game of most players' careers. No one inside the bubble, particularly players, coaches and league leaders, wants to upset a season’s worth of work with a controversial political comment. Certainly not in a Super Bowl city teeming with reporters. And I understand that, above all, the NFL provides entertainment and escapism for its fans.
Inside the bubble, it’s hard to believe that only six months ago, NFL players inspired other professional and college athletes to raise awareness about political issues. At the start of this season, players protested the National Anthem and brought to mind the iconic political stands athletes took in the late 1960s. Most famously, Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in a “human rights salute,” and Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army because of his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Now, with the country deeply divided and NFL players on their biggest stage, the sidestepping of Trump and executive orders and relations with Mexico is yet another unfortunate and misguided prophylactic designed to protect the NFL's image. See the league’s handling of concussions and domestic violence.
...with the country deeply divided and NFL players on their biggest stage, the sidestepping of Trump...is yet another unfortunate and misguided prophylactic designed to protect the NFL's image.
Activists have attempted to pierce the Super Bowl bubble this week. On Sunday, anti-Trump protests took place outside Super Bowl Live, which is billed as a family friendly fan festival celebrating Super Bowl LI. More anti-Trump, anti-immigration ban gatherings are planned for the days ahead. But in downtown Houston, the activists and their agenda are easily pushed aside by the crush of football-focused humanity and the NFL’s packed schedule of events and announcements about year-end awards and Hall of Fame selections.
From my hotel room, I look out onto The NFL Experience, “pro football’s interactive theme park.” Crowds flock to a mini-field, attend autograph sessions with players, and gaze at a display of championship rings. Music with a heavy bass beat echoes off nearby buildings. Skaters glide around an outdoor ice rink in 70-degree heat. And it’s just another day in the bubble.