New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick announced on Monday that he has declined to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian award—from President Donald Trump. Belichick was expected to receive the award on Thursday. The continuing fallout of last Wednesday’s deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by those seeking to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory propelled Belichick’s choice.
The medal is presented to individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls as a head coach and two others as a defensive coordinator, would have joined Paul “Bear” Bryant (awarded by President Ronald Reagan), John Wooden (awarded by President George W. Bush), Dean Smith (awarded by President Barack Obama), Pat Summitt (awarded by Obama) and Lou Holtz (awarded by Trump) as coaches to receive the award.
“Recently,” Belichick explained in a statement released Monday night, “I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients. Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy. I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team. One of the most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions. Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award.”
Belichick’s remarks highlight how this medal, which is awarded to individuals, has ramifications far beyond the recipient. Belichick stressed in his statement that he represents not only himself but his family and the Patriots. The Patriots, in turn, have relationships with players, coaches, fans, broadcasters and sponsors. Those sponsors include Procter & Gamble—which has a naming rights deal for Gillette Stadium—as well as JetBlue, DraftKings, Bank of America and other popular companies.
Belichick accepting the award would have attracted significant media criticism and, perhaps more impactfully, potential pushback back from sponsors. Sponsors—with the leverage of being revenue sources for teams—can play an influential role in how sports controversies are resolved. In 2014, Mercedes-Benz, Virgin America, Carmax and several other sponsors of the Los Angeles Clippers cut ties with the team in the wake of Donald Sterling’s racially-insensitive remarks.
By politely sidestepping receipt of the award, Belichick also averts potentially adverse business ramifications for his employer.