Across America, football coaches trying to inspire young players tell stories about Tom Brady. They say that because he was slow, unathletic, and unremarkable in college, NFL teams picked 198 other players before him in the 2000 selection draft. They describe his underwhelming physique in a shirtless scouting photo from April 2000 that has become a symbol of Brady’s legendary trajectory, a reminder that the game’s brightest minds passed up on his talents because the special qualities he possessed weren’t visible in snapshots, statistics, or stopwatches. He began his pro career as a little-known backup, then worked hard enough to become arguably the greatest football player of all time. Brady’s true gift, these coaches might say, is his relentless devotion to his craft.
He goes to bed before 9 p.m., wakes at 5:30 a.m., and studies game film in his free hours. He avoids eating tomatoes, mushrooms, dairy, and gluten. He spends chunks of his spring and summer off-seasons organizing workouts with teammates to ensure they stay sharp between official practices. For most of his career, he agreed to a lower salary so that his team would have more money to sign other talented players. Brady himself attributes his professional success to how much he is willing to sacrifice for his job. On a recent podcast interview, he said, “I almost look at a football season like I’m going away on deployment for the military.” (He subsequently apologized.)
“What are you willing to do and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be?” Brady says in the 2018 Facebook Watch docuseries Tom vs. Time. “If you’re gonna compete against me, you’ve gotta be willing to give up your life. Because I’m giving up mine.”
Brady embodies a trope as old as the patriarchy: the honorable provider who clocks in even when he doesn’t feel like it, gives his fullest effort every second, and rises up the ranks of his industry, securing his family’s financial well-being. He bears this burden for his loved ones, he will tell you, and he appreciates their unyielding support because after a long day of providing, a man needs a warm embrace to come home to. Winning the Super Bowl “meant a lot for my family,” Brady says in Tom vs. Time, “knowing what all my family put into it.” He is, in his telling, a martyr for a righteous cause. As long as he thrives at work, pays the bills, and refrains from any abusive behavior, he fulfills the obligations of being A Good Man.
Many men hold onto that standard even though it’s a relic from a world that no longer exists. Women can make their own money now. A male provider is no longer an essential and inevitable component of a stable household. Traditional gender roles are now a choice. In a typical heteronormative partnership, a man who channels all his energy into professional work denies that freedom of ambition to the woman who is left to handle all the unpaid labor he ignores — an act of selfishness cloaked in proclamations of selflessness. Brady’s wife, multimillionaire Brazilian fashion model Gisele Bündchen, doesn’t need a provider. Yet even though she has earned more money than him overall, she also oversaw all their household matters. In an interview with Howard Stern, Brady recounted that in 2018, Bündchen wrote him a letter expressing frustration with the imbalance his work habits had created.
“She didn’t feel like I was doing my part for our family,” he said. “She felt like I would play football all season and she would take care of the house, and all of a sudden when the season would end, I would be like, ‘Great, let me get into all my other business activities. Let me get into my football training.’ And she’s sitting there going, ‘Well, when are you going to do things for the house? When are you going to take the kids to school and do that?’”
In February, Brady announced that he was retiring from football “to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.” He acknowledged the lingering disparity in his marriage.
“I always came off the field and home to the most loving and supportive wife who has done EVERYTHING for our family to allow me to focus on my career,” he wrote in the statement. “Her selflessness allowed me to reach new heights professionally.”
A month later, he announced that he had changed his mind and would return for another season. Bündchen expressed concerns about the decision in an interview with Elle. “I would like him to be more present,” she said. “I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again.” This fall, a few weeks into the NFL season, the New York Post reported that Brady and Bündchen have hired divorce lawyers.
Brady’s struggles to find the balance necessary for an equal partnership reflect a toxic byproduct of conventional masculinity that has stunted the emotional development of many men, me included. While women with professional ambitions grew up reckoning with the fraught expectations over how to juggle work and personal life, men have long carried the privilege of never having to consider such a compromise. Instead, our role models, media representations, and inherited norms train us to measure our worth exclusively through professional accomplishment. Handle that business, I assumed, and everything else falls into place.
This mentality is most visible in sports, where work plays out in public feats and failures. Kobe Bryant’s famous “Mamba Mentality,” which elevated work ethic as a sacred virtue, “is about 4 a.m. workouts, doing more than the next guy,” he said in an interview. Michael Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit, which made him the greatest basketball player ever, excused his abusive behavior toward teammates. Football players have missed the birth of their child rather than miss a game, taken the field while mourning the death of a loved one, and ridden hundreds of miles in a car to get to a stadium because a lung injury prevented them from flying on a plane but not from slamming their body around. Sport has helped train men to internalize the school of conventional masculinity — to compartmentalize rather than reflect on anxieties, channel rather than process emotions, take pride in pushing through hurt rather than pausing to heal.
The highest-profile athletes to push back against these expectations have been women. After withdrawing from the 2021 Olympics to focus on her mental health, Simone Biles told the Associated Press, “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.” After Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open last year to focus on addressing her anxiety and depression, she wrote in a Time magazine essay that “it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it.” Fifteen top women soccer players in Spain refused to play for the national team because the coach’s management style took a toll on “their emotional state and their health.”
For many men like Brady, stepping away from work can be an intimidating prospect. When you define yourself through your professional status, give all of yourself to the enterprise, what is there left to come back to?
Some of the greatest athletes seem to feel so lost without competing that they push themselves past their bodies’ limits. After he had shattered baseball records, Babe Ruth kept playing even as his broken-down body left him hobbling around the field, barely able to contribute. After his fairy tale retirement on the heels of a championship-winning shot, Michael Jordan returned in diminished form four years later. Even Muhammad Ali, who was willing to risk his boxing career to stand against the Vietnam War, continued to strap on the gloves after his body was too slow to protect him from hits and his brain showed signs of severe damage.
As a football fan, I have watched Brady for two decades and found little interesting about him outside of his football obsession. His interviews are boring, filled with clichés and platitudes. When reporters asked about the Make America Great Again Hat in his locker in 2015 — possibly the first real glimpse into his off-field interests — he said that Trump had sent it to him through New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who placed it in the star quarterback’s locker. Brady noted that he and Trump had played golf together, and that “he always gives me a call and different types of motivational speeches at different times,” but wouldn’t say whether he planned to vote for him. The hat was gone from the locker the next day, and Brady never again expressed any public support for Trump. It was unclear what he really thought, but if anybody was capable of living under a rock, it was Brady, a man who has subsumed his entire personality into being a great football player. (While he has avoided openly discussing his politics, his name is again linked to a controversial Republican: the New York Times reported that Brady has been texting with Florida governor Ron DeSantis.)
I’ve never liked Brady, but growing up with football dreams, I reluctantly respected his pursuit of excellence. When I was in high school, during Brady’s early championship runs, I too had tunnel vision. I asked my coach for a key to the weight room and showed up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to get in a lift before first period. In the off-season, I organized workouts with the few teammates who were willing to give up their afternoons, and on the days nobody joined, I pushed through sprints and footwork drills on my own. I refrained from alcohol and all the other intoxicants my friends consumed at parties. I shaped my identity around being an athlete, walking into class with a proud limp of soreness, wearing T-shirts bearing the names of the colleges I hoped would offer me a scholarship.
I kept the mentality even after I quit playing football during my second year of college, transferring my obsessive energy into the journalism career I was pursuing. Over the first decade of my career, I worked 60 to 70 hours most weeks, juggling day-job reporting with book projects and other side hustles, rarely sleeping more than five or six hours, regularly pulling all-nighters. During that time, I went on just two proper vacations that lasted a week or more. On weekends, I developed a routine that I called “workbrunch,” which entailed posting up at a restaurant for four hours of writing over mimosas and egg sandwiches. I allowed my work to take up every inch of space available, and created as much space as I could for it, because I felt like any inch it didn’t cover was a missed opportunity. Like Brady, I was willing to set aside anything that obstructed that pursuit of productivity. I often took days to respond to texts, rarely picked up the phone for non-work calls, and put off quality time with people I care about, deluding myself into thinking that my schedule would eventually clear up after reaching some imaginary horizon.
It was easy to project a greater purpose onto that grind. I was exposing injustices in my writing. I was earning money I could share with my mom. I was ascending to a professional standing that would allow me to help elevate other journalists of color. But those were collateral benefits from what was actually ego-driven ambition. I lived that way because I enjoyed the work, took pride in putting in long hours, and measured my worth through the quality of my published stories. By projecting a righteous cause onto my work habits, I could justify, or better yet ignore, the damage my decisions wrought on other aspects of my life — the relationships I wasn’t giving attention to, the body I stopped taking care of, the mental health obstacles I compartmentalized. I lost the ability to disconnect. In every moment of free thought, my mind reflexively swung back to the projects I’d voluntarily piled on my plate.
I saw this as a mark of efficiency, not a problem. I considered extreme sacrifice a prerequisite to excellence because that was what I learned from the athletes I admired. I hadn’t considered that my actions promoted a capitalist culture that rewards those who prioritize work above all. Nor that I had internalized the false notion that professional duties are more valuable than the unpaid labor of looking out for others, keeping one’s personal life in order, and committing to self-examination. It didn’t occur to me that ignoring parts of my life I wasn’t interested in was a privilege that came at a cost to people I care about.
Only once the weight was too heavy to bear was I able to break free from the cycle. I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball because I was out of shape. My mom’s increasingly extreme political leanings compelled me to devote more time to repairing our relationship. I resisted long-term romantic commitments because I lacked the emotional energy to nurture an equal partnership. I found it hard to get through the day without lighting up a spliff or four. By this spring, when another round of financial contractions rocked my workplace, I found myself overwhelmed by professional decisions for the first time in my career. I admitted to myself that I was burnt out, and began the process of restoring aspects of myself that had corroded from negligence. I took the longest vacation of my adult life this summer. I started going to therapy. I stopped saying yes to every professional opportunity. Rather than infinitely chasing productivity, I vowed to pursue balance. It’s an ongoing battle.
My progress isn't linear, my setbacks are frequent, my journey is at an early stage. Like a devil on my shoulder, my old habits tempt me to push forward alone, to believe I can solve any problem I put my mind to without any help. But I know now I couldn't have gotten this far without my support system of close friends and family who have my back, tell me what I need to hear, and guide me to many of the realizations shaping my evolving worldview. I'm deeply afraid to lose these folks. I hope to contribute to their personal development as much as they have to mine. Of all the factors motivating me, the strongest one might be my love for a community that enriches my life more than my work ever could.
I wonder how Brady is processing the transitional stage he is currently facing. I wonder who he has around him telling him what he needs to hear. He is 45 years old now, still squeezing every ounce of athletic potential out of his body, still holding his own in a sport where few players stick around into their late 30s. But major life changes loom large over his carefully crafted routine. The 20-plus-year career he has dedicated his life to is slowly, inevitably coming to an end — as might be his marriage of 13 years. He can distract himself with work. He can try to keep playing until he is 50. He can apply his obsessive energy to being a football coach or a business executive. Or maybe this is the moment he frees himself from the toxic burden so many men have placed upon us to fulfill our egos. Maybe he will see that the world has passed him by. Maybe he will worry that one day, when coaches tell their young players about Tom Brady, it won’t be to inspire but to serve as a cautionary tale. ●