Richard Spencer watched February’s Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots in Whitefish, Montana at his mother’s house. The avowed white nationalist and a leader of the alt-right movement, Spencer was hoping to see something he could use to rile up his 50,000 Twitter followers. Maybe halftime performer Lady Gaga would wear an American flag hijab or make some other progressive political statement. She didn’t oblige. So Spencer started to tweet about the Patriots.
Though they play in deep-blue Massachusetts, the Patriots had already come to be associated with Donald Trump. There’s the flag-waving name, for one thing. Then the “Make America Great Again” hat found in quarterback Tom Brady’s locker. Team owner Robert Kraft was Trump’s good friend. And Trump read a letter at a campaign rally—“Your leadership is amazing”—that he received from head coach Bill Belichick.
Spencer was a Trump supporter, but for him, the Patriots were more than just the president’s team. When he watched the Patriots, he could see a white quarterback, Brady, pass to a trio of wide receivers who were also white: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. “Rooting for the Pats!” he tweeted, with the Patriots trailing 28-3. “1/ Belichick & Brady support Trump 2/ Three White widereceivers (sic) 3/ Consistently NFL’s whitest team 4/ ATL is dreadful.”
The Patriots then staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Spencer was giddy, and a flurry of tweets followed, punctuated by a GIF of Brady—who Spencer called an “Aryan Avatar”—kissing his German-Brazilian supermodel wife, Giselle Bundchen, with the caption, “For the White race, it’s never over.” Spencer got the response he was looking for. Most fans were horrified, while his supporters retweeted him thousands of times. David Duke even chimed in.
Spencer’s tweets became a troubling sideshow to the dramatic win. Appalled fans tweeted that he had sucked the joy from the Patriots’ victory. By the next morning, Boston Magazine, the New York Daily News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others ran items chronicling Spencer’s tweets. For Spencer, the rampant denunciations only added to his pleasure. “It was like the alt-right won the Super Bowl,” Spencer told me recently.
Tomorrow, the Patriots are scheduled to appear at the White House, the first championship team Trump will host. And when the president stands with the team for their photo op, there will be no shortage of competing political messages. Since the Super Bowl, which was played 16 days after the Inauguration, several players—most notably Devin McCourty and Chris Long—have announced that they will not make the trip for political reasons. (They participated in a video recently discussing their decision.) The Patriots, and the NFL, too, have found themselves unavoidably linked with a divisive political moment. The league will sell patriotism, Trump will sell himself as a winner, and the absent players will be hailed by the Trump resistance. Spencer expects to be tweeting, too, capitalizing again on the opportunity for attention. After all, it worked so well the last time.
But for Spencer, there’s a twist: He was actually wrong about his charge. The Patriots aren’t the “whitest” team in the NFL. The team couldn’t exactly leap to its own defense—nobody wants to start publicly sorting players by race, for one thing. (The Patriots did not respond to a request for comment.) But statistics don’t bear him out. But the way the incendiary message came to divide fans anyway, and to stain the Patriots, speaks volumes about the power of confirmation bias, opportunism and the power of online trolling in the time of Trump. And it has exposed a truth about sports often glossed over by talk of athletic meritocracy being the great social equalizer: In fact, sports, because of its paramount presence in American culture, is uniquely susceptible to those who want to use it for political purposes.
“Why do you rob a bank?” asked the ESPN radio and TV host Bomani Jones, who has written extensively about race and sports. “Because that’s where the money is. If you want to get a message out, the NFL is where the eyeballs are.”
Politics, at first, were very good to the Patriots. It was a raw moment in American history—just five months after 9/11—when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl. The Patriots were two-touchdown underdogs against the St. Louis Rams, and after the upset, Kraft famously proclaimed, “Today, we are all Patriots.” Something about the win felt ordained by fate—a wounded America proudly prevailing over adversity.
But as the Patriots came to dominate the NFL, the team stopped seeming like good guys. Even before the associations with Trump, the team came to be seen as skirting the edges of the rules, and sometimes crossing them, as when they illicitly filmed opponents. And Brady served a four-game suspension last season for Deflategate, the melodrama over footballs that may or may not have been illegally tampered with.
Along the way, the Patriots also gained an odd reputation for having white receivers on their rosters. (The majority of star wide receivers, like most defensive backs, are black.) Most shrugged it off as a quirk, noting the Patriots were good at finding hidden value from all kinds of players. “It was mostly chuckled about by sports writers,” Jones said. “Like, ha-ha, the Patriots have some white pass catchers.”
But others fed the narrative. FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who is African-American, described a Patriots playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as “a contest soaked in the white-black racial component that has driven American sports passion.” Brady, he wrote, “leads an offense built in his image. In a league that is predominantly black, Brady directs a high-flying offense that is predominantly white and relies on a deep cast of white playmakers”—tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Wes Welker and running back Danny Woodhead. Brady’s chief adversary, Whitlock continued, was the Ravens defensive legend, Ray Lewis, who “leads a defense built in his brash image. Nine of the 11 Ravens defenders are African-American.”
Whitlock professed to be stating something as obvious and innocuous as the fact that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had a great rivalry in 1980s. But he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Spencer, whose white nationalist views were evolving, noticed, too. He was born in Brookline, Mass. and though he grew up in Texas a Dallas Cowboys fan, he paid attention to the Patriots. In alt-right circles, he discussed the Patriots’ rosters with friends. He read pieces on a website called Caste Football, which celebrates white athletes and dissects the racial makeup of college and pro teams. A piece on the site about Deflategate even positioned the controversy as a race-based attack on New England: “The Patriots represent an example of white men being successful. And that just can’t happen in a league whose sole purpose to the media-government-corporate complex is to provide highly publicized and constantly promoted examples of successful black men.”
For Spencer, who believes minorities in America are dispossessing white ethnic Europeans of their country, sports provided a perfect venue to examine the oppression of whites: Why weren’t there more white football and basketball players? In the early days of his first webzine, Alternativeright.com, he wrote a piece that put the hatred of Duke basketball in racial terms (Spencer was a doctoral student in European intellectual history at Duke). “People love to hate the Dukies because they stand as a flagrant violation of the trajectory of college and professional basketball over the past 30 years,” he wrote. “Duke is white, they play white, and they win.”
When I met Spencer recently at a cafe in Alexandria, he used a pseudonym to order coffee because, as he put it, “the hippies and yoga-pant wearing women would be attacking me.” He then explained that people responded to his Super Bowl tweets because they had touched on an unspoken racial angst. “What the alt-right does is find the pressure point and bring it to the fore,” Spencer said. “I do think there is an element of white consciousness when fans watch Julian Edelman score a touchdown.”
Because of the ties to Trump and because of the Patriots’ roster, it was easy, Spencer said, for people to follow his logic—and react to it. It was similar to when the alt-right glommed onto the Trump campaign, or what happened a few weeks after the Super Bowl when Spencer called Depeche Mode the official band of the alt-right (the band publicly distanced itself from Spencer).
“The idea is to take a kernel of truth and transform it,” Spencer said. “That comment doesn’t work if I say Bob Marley is the band of the alt-right, just like the Super Bowl doesn’t work if I say the Falcons are the team of the alt-right.” A smile spread across his face. “It’s because people were already thinking about race—consciously or subconsciously—that we turned the Super Bowl into a propaganda bonanza,” he said.
Dr. Richard Lapchick is a lifelong activist in the world of sports. His father, Joe, helped integrate the NBA when he was the coach of the New York Knicks, and in the 1970s Lapchick spearheaded a campaign to fight apartheid by keeping South Africa out of international sporting events. In 1978, several men attacked him and carved the N-word—misspelled with one g—into his abdomen with a pair of scissors. When I asked Lapchick about Spencer and the Patriots, he said sports have long been a venue for racial progress, and he commended players like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James for using their platform to speak out. But he also acknowledged that the platform cuts two ways. “In this case, players are being manipulated by outside forces,” he said, referring to alt-right supporters like Spencer. “They are being co-opted, and it’s not fair.”
Today, Lapchick is a professor at the University of Central Florida’s business school, where he publishes an annual racial and gender report card for all the major professional leagues. His agreement with the league prevents him from sharing team-by-team data from his NFL reports, but he said that by the numbers, the Patriots did not stand out as a “white” team. “What I can tell you is that if you follow the Patriots over the years, their percentage of African-Americans is consistent with the league,” he said.
Determined to figure out whether the “kernel of truth” that Spencer was talking about actually exists, I called David Berri, a sports economist at the Southern Utah University. In 2009, Berri published a study that found some black quarterbacks were underpaid relative to their white counterparts. With some guidance from Berri, I used rosters from ProFootballReference.com to create an unofficial census for the NFL. By my rough count, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Cleveland had the most white players; the majority of teams, including the Patriots, had between 15 and 20. (The rosters I used typically listed around 60 players.)
I called Spencer to deliver the news. “Really?” he asked, his voice registering a twinge of disappointment. He first wanted to know which team was the whitest, but he then quickly wondered if he could still make his claim for the Patriots by going back through all of the Belichick years. I explained Lapchick’s work and his promise that there was no year-over-year trend.
I then told Spencer that, according to my census, the Falcons had nearly the same number of white players last season as the Patriots. “That’s funny,” Spencer said. “The perception of Atlanta was much different.” He suggested that white wide receivers are significant because they’re more noticeable than a white place kicker or a punter. “You have Edelman and Hogan and Brady, a very handsome, Trump-supporting quarterback with a beautiful wife,” he said. “Sometimes prominence can outweigh the average.”
As the information continued to sink in, Spencer seemed almost surprised by the power of his own Super Bowl tweets. “The fact is I tweeted things and they resonated for a reason—no one questioned them,” he said.
Certainly, the timing of the Super Bowl played a role: Trump was still freshly installed in the White House, and America’s political nerves were frayed on both sides. Two Sundays before, millions across the country—from Washington to Boise—marched to protest President Trump’s inauguration. Less than a week later, Trump introduced his first travel ban for seven majority Muslim nations, which brought thousands more protestors to airports. As the game approached, racial tensions and tensions over Trump seemed to weave together, and Spencer exploited the moment. “Teams you root for speak to your identity,” Jones said, noting also that the Patriots were a ripe target for non-political reasons, too. “There’s a whole lot of people who hate the Patriots and want anything to throw against them.”
Wednesday’s visit at the White House will likely be a light-hearted affair, with President Trump heaping lavish praise on his favorite team. But the politics of the moment will be impossible to miss. The majority of the players who have announced they are skipping the trip to Washington because of their opposition to the Trump administration are black, which in an unfortunate bit of irony could make the Patriots appear slightly whiter alongside Trump. “I feel bad for them,” Jones said. “You win the Super Bowl and Richard Spencer jumps up and says this is our team. What do you do?” Then he had a thought: The Patriots’ third string quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, is black (He started two games last season). “You know, they’re a Jimmy Garoppolo trade and a Tom Brady injury from starting a black guy instead of Brady.”