When Tom Brady was drafted into the National Football League, famously in the sixth round by the New England Patriots, I was in grade school–the same could be said for Rob Gronkowski, who caught more touchdown passes from Brady in his career than the #2 and #3 recipients of them combined. When he won his third Super Bowl title, the now-oldest quarterback in the National Football League, thirty-eight year-old Aaron Rodgers, had not even yet been drafted by the Green Bay Packers. And when reports circulated on Saturday that Tom Brady was retiring, and when Brady himself confirmed the news today, I was thirty-three years old.
While debates over who the greatest of all-time is in any given field, they tend to quickly devolve into bickering by those with different definitions of greatness, but I think it is virtually impossible to argue that Tom Brady is not the most accomplished player in NFL history. He is the all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, the two marquee statistical categories for the most important position in the sport. By Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, a flawed metric but the closest thing the sport has to a Wins Above Replacement, Brady is the most valuable player ever. And then, of course, there are the record seven Super Bowl championships–six with the Patriots and one in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were coming off three consecutive losing seasons prior to his arrival.
As a fan of the now-defunct team who ignored Marshall Faulk enough to gift Brady his first Super Bowl title, I was an early adopter in rooting against the guy (in the early 2000s, St. Louis faced a team from Boston twice in the championship round and the national rooting interest was generally in favor of Boston because Boston was viewed as a beleaguered sports city), and while I have always viewed Bill Belichick as The Real Enemy of the New England Patriots dynasty, I’ve long held a special place in my heart for loathing Tom Brady. While the presences of my least favorite sports team in the entire world and a team for whom my Native American wife would be right to divorce me for cheering have forced me into the uncomfortable (though, I must admit, much more consistently satisfying) position of rooting for Tom Brady in multiple Super Bowls, rooting against him has been one of the longest-lasting vendettas in my life as a sports fan.
There is no objective reason for this. The tangible reasons to hate Tom Brady are for things I will gladly overlook when the situation is convenient for me–affiliation with a competitive espionage ring (I mean, I’m writing this from a St. Louis Cardinals blog–glass houses and such), dubious political affiliations (aside from the fact that his political views really don’t seem to be a defining characteristic in his life, they’re also extremely common among NFL quarterbacks), and a milquetoast public persona (again, I’m a baseball fan) really only come up as problems when they pertain to this specific guy. He has not been accused of sexual harassment, unlike Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. He cared enough about winning even during his age-44 season that he made sure he was available for every game and worked to make sure his teammates were as well, unlike Aaron Rodgers.
Tom Brady has done everything right for his teams. He worked tirelessly and is worshipped as a superhero among the fans of his teams. So how could anyone not like him? Because I just don’t, that’s why.
It is extremely liberating to not have to think rationally about sports, and whenever possible, I highly recommend it. You get the fun parts of sports fandom with anti-fandom, but without any sense, silly as it might be, that what you are watching is a morality play being acted out before your very eyes. Do you know how much more fun I would have had rooting against the 2016 Chicago Cubs, a team consisting mostly of fun-to-generic players, if they hadn’t acquired Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline and given me an actual, defensible reason to hate them? And I’m sure fans of the Chicago Cubs with a moral compass feel the same way–watching a bunch of Cardinals fans try to scramble with their justifications of how Well Actually Ben Zobrist Is Problematic Because Reasons is so much more fun than being reminded constantly that your preferred outcome will make an actual monster feel happy.
Tom Brady was the perfect kind of sports villain–a wrestling heel of sorts who, even if inadvertently (his social media presence, which is relatively very new compared to most professional athletes, is funnier than I would have expected, but is clearly very heavily sanitized and well-manicured), is fun to hate. There is no baseball equivalent to Tom Brady for the simple reason that there is not a single baseball player since, I don’t know, Jackie Robinson?, who is as famous as Tom Brady is. But Jackie Robinson is not a villain, at least to a modern fan divorced from rooting against his team and with a modicum of a soul. Babe Ruth is not a villain in any sincere way–even for Boston Red Sox fans with an eye on history and who have received no solace from four World Series titles in a fifteen-year span, the villain is and was Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner who sold off Ruth and many other Red Sox greats in order to finance his Broadway productions.
On a much more regional level, a decent baseball proxy for Tom Brady is Yadier Molina. Molina overtly embraces the heel role–his iconic thumbs-pointing at his last name when booed by Cincinnati Reds fans at the All-Star Game being perhaps the most obvious example of this. There is a sub-section of Yadier Molina hatred that ventures into questionable territory–the faux-liberals behind the anti-Cardinals Twitter account Best Fans St. Louis once campaigned for Buster Posey over Yadier Molina in an All-Star Game by posting a side-by-side of Buster Posey in front of an American flag and Yadier Molina in a grayscale photo, which maybe not a great message when juxtaposing a white guy as the “real American” against a personal of color from Puerto Rico, guys (the post was wisely deleted).
But for the most part, hatred of Yadier Molina is just fun for people. Despite the social pox that is cries of Cancel Culture and voices being silenced, there is not some great evil in fans of the Reds or the Cubs or the Brewers or the Pirates booing Yadier Molina–it is a mark of respect for a player who has so frequently been a foil for them. Fans are not committing nor threatening actual violence. They aren’t regularly dispensing slurs (I went to some dark corners of the internet to research this–it seems as though the racist t-shirt vendor industry that once produced, say, “Pujols Mows My Lawn” shirts outside of Wrigley Field has largely disappeared). The presence of Yadier Molina, though a far less famous and far less accomplished player than Tom Brady, does still manage to galvanize a region to collective passion. That passion is stupid, but that’s what sports fandom is–a low-stakes way to anthologize our collective feelings.
A funny thing happened when the Tom Brady news broke–a lot of people I know who detested Tom Brady throughout his career seemed oddly mad about it. In theory, this was the enemy stepping aside, but what people may not have realized is that he had value as the enemy. On some level, I’m going to miss that corny weirdo–even as my NFL viewing went from religious to purely rooting for scenarios which lead to Stan Kroenke dying before seeing his team win a championship (ain’t going well at the moment!), just knowing that Tom Brady was there to be rooted against was comforting. And on some level, the Cardinals’ NL Central rivals are going to feel the same way when Yadier Molina is gone. What are they going to do–boo Andrew Knizner or Ivan Herrera? Where’s the fun in that?