It’s almost impossible to say this year has belonged to anyone, through the admittedly indeterminate criteria often applied by the media. There are few superlatives worthy of being handed out during a year when a global pandemic threatens to cancel the very season we’re covering. Patrick Mahomes, as he’s often done throughout his exceptional career to date, may have proven to be one of the lone exceptions to the rule, graduating to become the unquestioned face of the NFL.
Mahomes’ on-field resume doesn’t need to be recited for the umpteenth time, but here’s a quick recap: After winning the Super Bowl, Mahomes signed a record extension worth up to $503 million and recently got engaged, too. He already understands what it means to be the league’s premier player at 24 and what that entails, both on and off the field, better than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady did. There aren’t too many universal maxims anymore that apply from the pre-pandemic world, but it’s resoundingly clear that it’s not enough to be merely brilliant on the field.
Being the face of the league is a nebulous concept, a tag that often defines commercial superstar status more than what the league’s players aim to represent more broadly off the field. In fighting for a better future for Black people across America while forcing a league with enough political and social capital to make the New York Stock Exchange grind to a halt if it desired into a reckoning about how it has treated its Black players, Mahomes inherently understands what it truly means to be the face of the NFL.
The NFL and its ownership group has treated Black players and Black people poorly.
Of the four major North American male professional sports leagues, the NFLPA is by far the most ineffective union, constantly submitting to the demands of the 32 owners.
We’re barely removed from the bad faith debate about whether Lamar Jackson, the second unanimous MVP in league history and the only other player who can rival Mahomes for top billing, should be moved to wide receiver. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian admitted in August to Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas that he was wrong about Jackson, but the Ravens star shouldn’t have to be exceptional just to get a fair chance from the old vanguard.
At the height of protests against police brutality, anti-Black racism and systemic racism, Mahomes, along with a host of the NFL’s best players, participated in a video organized by Saints star Michael Thomas, demanding for the NFL to state Black Lives Matter, admit they silenced their players from protesting for years against police brutality, and for a public condemnation of racism.
It’s not on Black people to bare their trauma for the world with minimal support from white quarterbacks or the NFLPA against an ownership group that has both covertly and overtly tried to thwart any modicum of progress.
Jason Reid of The Undefeated wrote an essay in June titled “The power of Patrick Mahomes saying Black Lives Matter” and perfectly summarized the importance of the quarterback’s participation in the above video:
At that moment, Goodell and the owners were backed into a corner. As hard as they have worked to avoid even the mere mention of race, often awkwardly, let alone the whole Black Lives Matter movement over the past four years, seeing their best player saying those words required an immediate shift in strategy.
The league was dragged into the national discussion about police brutality and systemic oppression by Kaepernick, and then was prodded to capitulate on opposing protesting and openly support its players by Mahomes. Two black quarterbacks setting the agenda for the NFL whether owners liked it or not. As late as the late 1980s, there was still a widespread belief in the league’s corridors of power that Black quarterbacks lacked the smarts, heart and ability to truly lead on the field. We’re way past those days, having crossed over into the uncharted territory of Black quarterbacks establishing the league’s off-field political agenda. The sea change occurred slowly, but it’s here now, as evidenced by the fact that Goodell put it on tape.
Quarterbacks run the NFL. They’re the on-field CEOs. Through his actions, Mahomes pushed Goodell and the owners to quickly and dramatically change direction, two things they’re generally loath to do, and go all-in on the reckoning occurring nationally on race and inequity.
Mahomes, Jackson and Deshaun Watson have rejected the notion of merely sticking to sports, when that option presented itself as all too convenient for their predecessors. Speaking out against injustices and trying to elevate the Black community has been an essential part of their platforms since entering the NFL. This was rarely true of Manning and Brady through their careers.
In 2006, Manning won the Samuel S. Beard Award for public service and as of 2017, the Peyback Foundation has raised over $13 million for at-risk children. To state that Manning didn’t use his platform at all during the peak of his career would be an unfair criticism.
Philanthropy and politics aren’t always congruous. Manning rarely spoke about political issues during his career, to the extent that New York Magazine ran a profile in 2017 (two years after he retired) taking a deeper look at where he stands, but he has refused to distance himself from an administration that has transcended partisan politics in its abject cruelty.
Brady is arguably the greatest football player of all-time, but his legacy off the field might not age as well. Through his first three Super Bowl victories, Brady refused to discuss anything other than football and his endorsement portfolio, all while hiding under the carefully cultivated idea that singular dedication to football is all that matters. It’s all but built into the Patriots’ mission statement, although one has to imagine Brady’s not about to change his history of indifference in Tampa Bay.
Brady’s relationship with Donald Trump has been under examination since the onset of his presidential campaign. When a “Make America Great Again” hat was seen in Brady’s locker in September 2015, the quarterback explained that Trump sent him the hat via Patriots owner Robert Kraft and that his friendship with the eventual president dated back to the start of his career.
In an April 2020 interview with Howard Stern, Brady once again defended his friendship with Trump, saying that he wouldn’t undo his relationship with the president while making an unconvincing distinction that it isn’t necessarily an overt endorsement of his policies.
“I didn’t want to support, I didn’t want to get into all the political ... there’s zero win in anything in regards to that. It’s politics,” Brady said. “The whole political realm right now ... I’m a person, from my standpoint, to embrace leadership. I got brought together in a locker room where I was trying to get along with everybody. In an outward sense, when you start talking about politics is about how you do not bring people together, which is the opposite of what politics should have always been in our country.”
The idea that Brady could avoid discussing politics because of potential inconvenience is simply white privilege in full form, a luxury that would never be afforded to the NFL’s new leadership class.
Although most presidents ostensibly would be focused on domestic and foreign policy initiatives through their first year in office, Trump declared the NFL as his enemy, infuriated that Colin Kaepernick would protest police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. Trump implored owners to fire players who protested during the anthem in a September 2017 rally, saying that any owner who stated “get that son of a the bitch off the field” would become the most popular person in America.
The NFL and its partners are trying to make amends. Of course they are. Any organization that produces over $15 billion in revenue isn’t obtuse to the current political climate, just wilfully ignorant. Roger Goodell apologized to Kaepernick in August, saying he wished the league listened to him earlier. But it’s hard to believe his apology is sincere and not an act of gamesmanship. Goodell is a puppet controlled by the strings of the NFL’s owners and this was as palatable a statement his advisors could provide him with.
Mahomes and Jackson are from the most internet-literate generation, and surely they can see through the nonsense. This is a league trying to overcompensate for its past inattention. How this relationship between the NFL’s emerging class of superstars and the NFL itself continues to unfold will be compelling to watch, but this isn’t a group that has much patience for B.S. This is a group that is unafraid to speak its mind, potential consequences be damned.
Mahomes’ political involvement didn’t stop with his participation in the video organized by Thomas. After working with teammate Tyrann Mathieu, Mahomes focused his political efforts on voter registration, partnering with non-partisan group RISE to Vote, stemming from discussions about how to affect change after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people at the hands of the police.
"Voter registration — no matter whatever views you have or what political party you're voting for – [is important] because it gives everybody the right to vote," Mahomes said via the Chiefs’ official website. "It's something we believe in and as leaders in this community, we all should be registered to vote."
Some may view this as a tepid statement by arguing that true political engagement goes beyond voting, but it speaks volumes in comparison to Brady, who is nearly two decades older than Mahomes and has arguably been one of the faces of the NFL since the turn of the century.
You don’t get to back down from political pressure when you’re the face of the league. Mahomes understands this completely, while his predecessors never did. It may be too late for the NFL to truly be a socially conscious league, but its top stars, with Mahomes at the forefront, have at least sprung some hope in a league devoid of it.
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