Tom Brady and the Privilege of Whiteness

Tom Brady 
Al Bello/Getty Images
Tom Brady 
Al Bello/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This piece was first published at New Black Man (in Exile).

Tom Brady demonstrates the unflinching power of whiteness in contemporary America. Black people are punished and demonized for cheating. White men like Tom Brady get to do all sorts of s—t for a competitive edge, and they are gaming the system. This is yet another demonstration of white privilege.


Recently the NFL released the Wells Report, which concluded that Tom Brady—America’s quarterback, its golden boy, Giselle’s husband and the man who “shut up” Richard Sherman with a 2015 Super Bowl victory—was a cheater. Commissioned by the NFL, the Wells Report (pdf) looked into accusations that members of the Patriots organization conspired to circumvent league rules governing game balls. Specifically, it found the following: 

* “It is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the playing rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.” 

* “Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady … was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.” 

Yet the narrative that emerged has focused on how, at worst, he made a mistake; that if the accusations were indeed true, it was a lapse in judgment, since Brady has “integrity” and is a “good boy.” 

More common has been a focus on an unfair and arbitrary process, on the morally bankrupt NFL and the fascism of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Indeed, it seems, Tom Brady is the first player to deal with an unjust system, to endure the hypocrisy of Goodell’s NFL. Their selective outrage is telling. 

If he were black, people would be calling him a criminal and saying that his behavior reflected some innate values. They would blame hip-hop, single mothers and the culture of poverty. If he were a black player, the conversation wouldn’t be about Goodell or the system but how the lack of a work ethic and morals led him to cut corners, to win “by any means necessary.” If he were black, the conversation would turn to affirmative action and how he was forced to cheat because he lacked the skills needed to excel at this elite level.


But Tom Brady is white. No wonder the report and the announcement of a four-game suspension have led many into the virtual streets:

“Tom Brady’s Life Matters”

“An Outrage”

“An Injustice”

“An Unjust Ruling”

“A Capricious Rule”

“Unfair and Arbitrary” 

Sean Gregory, channeling narratives about white victimhood, wrote, “It’s actually pretty easy to pick on the cool kid. You don’t come across as a bully.” No, it’s pretty easy to brutalize the poor and to abuse the powerless; it’s easy to take a black life and then blame the person for his own death


Many have asked, “What’s the big deal? It wasn’t much of advantage, and besides, he has won plenty without such advantage.” 

Others have acknowledged that he may have violated an NFL rule, but is it a rule that really matters? Besides, everyone is doing it. As sports commentator Jim Rome has long said, “If you are not cheating, you are not trying.” But if you are white, cheating is not really cheating but merely an effort to get an edge, to garner a competitive advantage, and is no big deal.


No harm, no foul. 

For white athletes like Brady, what happens in the locker room is supposed to stay in the locker room.


For black athletes, cheating—whether taking performance-enhancing drugs or taking “easy-A classes”—is a sign of moral and communal failure. 

Just months ago, Little League Baseball stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title because of allegations of cheating. Although JRW violated a ridiculous and arbitrary rule in allowing a few kids from outside the district to play on the team, a punishment was deemed warranted and necessary. 


Many within the sports media and the public fomented outrage. “Rules are rules,” we were told. There is no excuse for cheating and not following the established rule. It doesn’t matter that everyone is doing it. It didn’t matter that the kids from Jackie Robinson West didn’t get an advantage. Rules are rules, and if you break them, there are consequences. 

The punishment directed at JRW was necessary, we were told, because it sent a message to kids that cheating has consequences. But I guess these same concerns don’t apply to Tom Brady and the Patriots. Their cheating isn’t a sign of eroding values; their wanton disregard for the rules isn’t a threat to our moral fabric. 


But what about the kids? You would think by the very different responses that Tom Brady is not a role model. 

“The truth is that many Americans have a dishearteningly high tolerance for cheating in professional sports,” writes the Chicago Tribune. “We dismiss the evidence. We make excuses. Sammy didn’t know that bat was corked! Who can prove all those players used steroids? Everyone puts a bit of Vaseline on the ball now and then. What’s the big deal about letting a little air out of a football?”


This separate and racially unequal acceptance of “cheating” extends beyond the sporting landscape. Look no further than what Michelle Alexander terms the “New Jim Crow.” According to the American Bar Association, while blacks account for 14 percent of all drug users, they make up 34 percent of all drug arrests and a whopping 53 percent of those given prison sentences for a drug offense. White kids getting high, popping Adderall and selling dime bags is nothing to worry about. Their cheating, or law breaking, is neither a threat nor seen as in need of punishment.

Whereas black drug dealers are dangerous thugs, white Wall Street executives are smart businessmen working under the rules of capitalism.


Whereas black kids taking diapers are looters, those who have stolen land, resources and so much more are patriots.

For Brady, and white America as a whole, we have been told over and over again that there needs to be proof, indisputable evidence that “America’s golden boy” is a cheater. 


Brady demonstrates yet again that whites are innocent … until proved innocent. Any evidence to the contrary proves that the system is flawed, that we have a miscarriage of justice. 

And don’t even come at him with circumstantial evidence. In a nation where video after video of white police officers killing unarmed black men and women has not prompted arrest, much less conviction, circumstantial evidence has little chance of penetrating the Teflon power of whiteness. 


If only the same rules applied to Barry Bonds, who, to date, has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. 

If only the same rules applied to Freddie Gray, who looked at an officer funny in the wrong way, prompting his arrest and ultimate death. 


In 2012 Tom Brady got into a heated argument with an assistant coach. It was dismissed as no big deal and a sign of his “passion for the game,” and he remained the league’s golden boy. Compare this with endless examples of black athletes who have routinely been demonized in any instance when they challenged their coach. When Brady talks trash to his opponents, it is a sign of his competitiveness; Richard Sherman, on the other hand, is a “thug” who doesn’t respect the game. 

The racial double standards are endless. It is no wonder that Brady and his supporters are outraged. He’s being penalized despite playing by the rules of America’s ultimate game, where white is always right.


David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.