Before leaving the White House on January 20, Donald Trump had originally planned to make awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick one of his final duties while in office. However, that plan will not materialize: Belichick announced on Monday that he will not accept the honor.
New England’s head coach released the following statement about his decision (via ESPN):
Recently, 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 other recipient. 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.
The Medal of Freedom was established by John F. Kennedy back in 1963, and is considered the highest honor a civilian can achieve in the United States. According to its official White House description, it is awarded “to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
While Belichick does not fall under the first category, he is one of the most successful people in the history of pro football. His six Super Bowl wins as head coach of the Patriots are the most in NFL history, while his 311 combined regular season and playoff victories are ranked third all time, behind only Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324).
Nonetheless, Belichick decided against accepting the honor from a divisive 45th President. Trump, after all, has recently come under increased scrutiny after inciting a violent mob that attacked the Capitol while Congress was in the process of confirming Joe Biden as the next President following his election victory over Trump in November. The attack left five people dead.
Despite the events and his presidency being in his final days, Trump recently selected several prominent sports figures as well as political allies to receive the honor. Among them are former college football coach Lou Holtz, golfers Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player, and late Olympian Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. Sorenstam, Player and Didrikson Zaharias were honored last Thursday.
Belichick not joining them may not come as a surprise given the circumstances, but it is a change of course after he expressed support for Trump ahead of the 2016 election.
Back then, Belichick wrote a letter — one that was read on stage by the future President during a campaign rally — saying that he would hope “tomorrow’s election results will give [Trump] the opportunity to make America great again.”
At the time, New England’s coach pointed out that his motive was not a political one but rather a gesture of friendship. Three months later, he and Trump met when the former was part of the Patriots team that was honored by the President at the White House. One year later, Trump named Belichick to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.
In 2019, he had another opportunity to visit the White House after the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl win. However, neither Belichick nor his team made the trip after numerous players decided to decline invitations as a form of protest against Trump.
Belichick also supported his players when they came under attack from the President for protesting police brutality and racial inequality by kneeling during the National Anthem early in the 2017 season. He also became an active part of this process this year, when the team held weekly meetings to discuss social justice matters in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in May.
After the Patriots’ season came to an end, Belichick pointed out that he had “learned a lot” during those meetings.
“I certainly learned a lot as a coach,” he said earlier this month. “I had to coach and do things that I’ve never done before, do things differently, and I learned a lot about our players. This was a very educational year from all the social justice meetings and things that we had in the spring which carried over into the season. I think our team did a great job of that.
“We had great leadership from Jason [McCourty], Devin [McCourty], Matt [Slater] and many others — Brandon King, guys that are involved in just many, many different aspects of that. But, most importantly, just bringing the awareness within the team for each other and us getting to know each other and appreciate each other’s background, story and thoughts. And that was very, again, educational for me, as well as everybody else.”