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In November, fresh off having players wear pink to raise awareness of breast cancer, the NFL put its coaches in camouflage as part of its "Salute To Service" campaign.
This is different than when teams were paid by the Department of Defense to stage patriotic/pro-military acts like bringing soldiers out on the field and asking fans to cheer. Sen. John McCain, among others, ripped that as "paid patriotism" and humbled the league and its teams into returning $6.8 million.
This campaign, per the league press release, is not about profit (no government money is involved) but because "supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL."
So coaches are wearing camo hats and camo sweatshirts and even camo headsets … all of which you can purchase. The USO, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Pat Tillman Foundation are beneficiaries.
Well, not all the coaches are wearing camo.
The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick has yet to put any on. He has worn a pin with camouflage on it, but not the full garb. A couple other coaches have worn only the camo headsets or the pin, but it's no surprise Belichick has gone low-key.
The campaign has left fans of both football and fashion confused … is Tom Coughlin wearing that because he went deer hunting this morning and forgot to change? And by the way, is anyone fooled by blue camo?
Officially it is a mystery why Belichick hasn't decked himself out fully in Salute to Service apparel. Belichick has not elaborated on it since Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston brought it up last week.
That probably isn't a coincidence.
This is, or would be, Belichick at his non-conformist best. It may even be a passive-aggressive, anti-league-office, anti-marketing-gimmick move. Eschewing Salute to Service camo is in line with his long-term stances on multiple levels.
Let's start with one undeniable fact: Belichick is extremely pro-military. He grew up in Annapolis, Md., where his father Steve was an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, his heroes and peers sailors or children of sailors. He has a long history of individual outreach to soldiers and their families. He's a serious military history buff.
All four of the Patriots' trips to the White House to celebrate winning a Super Bowl have included stops at Walter Reed Hospital, the Army's flagship medical facility for wounded vets.
Sources say he always takes time on Veterans Day or other times through the season to address the full team about what the holiday means, or why the national anthem is played before games or bring in others to speak about the importance of military service. It isn't just about honoring, it's about teaching the generally young men in his charge about what he believes is important.
Belichick's commitment to the cause can't be questioned. What can be questioned is the league demanding someone wear a camouflage hat. It is a mostly meaningless gesture and doesn't signify anything. It's a sort of forced, show-pony act that has become pervasive.
It's why this should be a choice. If a coach wants to wear it, fine – after all, any extra money that goes to the aforementioned organizations is a positive. If a coach doesn't want to wear it though, then fine also.
Maybe the league's intentions here were 100 percent noble. Considering its publicity-conscious way of doing business and that recent paid patriotism scandal though, it can also feel like this is more about what the military can do for the NFL than what the NFL can do for the military.
Mostly Belichick is defiantly his own man. He blazes his own trail and isn't one to go along with something for the sake of going along with something.
Salute to Service is no different than the breast cancer campaign, where often the only pink Belichick sports is on the swoosh of his Nikes.
Belichick has long been at odds with the circus surrounding pro football in general and the league office's role in it in particular.
How at odds?
According to multiple Patriots and Belichick sources through the years, it's cost him easy money, antagonized the league that has jumped of late to investigate him and even was the impetus behind his signature hoodie sweatshirt.
Let's start with the money. NFL head coaches have their own organization, the NFL Coaches Association, which sells their names and likenesses to various companies among other things. That includes, for instance, EA Sports, which produces the popular "Madden" football video game.
If you check the rosters on the game, 31 teams have their head coach listed by name: Mike McCarthy, Pete Carroll, Rex Ryan and so on. Not the Patriots. It doesn't say "Bill Belichick," it lists "NE Coach." It's been that way for years.
Why? The NFLCA said Belichick isn't a member. EA Sports said since he isn't, it doesn't have the right to use his name. If Belichick wanted, he could join the NFLCA and receive a payment for being in the video game. He's the last guy who would join a group though. He could negotiate directly with EA Sports but appears to simply not care.
Granted Belichick is already well off, but appearing in the video game would require no work on his behalf and is just one of many deals that the organization negotiates.
Still he refuses. A few years back I asked him why wouldn't he join the NFLCA and take the free money.
"I don't know," Belichick said
You don't know?
"I don't know," he repeated.
He knows, but doesn't want to answer. It isn't, his friends say, so much about making a silent statement and hoping others will catch on as much as it is he just doesn't care and won't play pretend. It isn't so much that Belichick won't play nice. It's that he won't play at all.
Either way, leaving it to speculation is the far more interesting route.
True anti-establishment rebels don't hold a news conference stating their opinions, they just do what they want and force everyone to figure it out on their own.
Consider the NFL's policy of having teams not just list player injuries, but using nebulous and unenforceable terms such as "probable" or "questionable." This helps gamblers, which is interesting since the NFL is officially against gambling on its games.
It is also unenforceable and pointless – maybe a coach is lying, maybe a guy gets better. There are weekly violations but really, who cares? It only marginally helps the opposing team game plan since no one trusts what anyone else is claiming in the first place. Unless a guy is "out" then everyone assumes he's "in."
Once, however, the media reported that Tom Brady was wearing ice on his throwing shoulder and there was a complaint that New England wasn't being forthcoming about an injury. Ice was actually routine treatment, like a baseball pitcher after a start, but if a cold pack meant injury then injury it would be.
Brady on the injury report as "probable" with a shoulder injury week after week for years even though Brady showed no sign of an actual shoulder injury and would just smile when the media asked about it.
Of course, Belichick also repeatedly brushed off any inquires into the shoulder injury. He was just complying with league rules, after all. If that made a mockery of things, well, he didn't make the rule.
All of this is believed, at least among some close to Belichick, why there is so much distrust, if not animosity, between the Patriots (Belichick and Brady in particular) and the NFL. Not just over spy-gate and deflate-gate but everything.
Maybe that's paranoia. Maybe that's reality. Either way, Belichick isn't changing.
Then there is the legend of the hoodie. According to sources through the years, after Reebok inked a reported $250 million deal as the official outfitter of the NFL in the early 2000s, one of the tenets of the contract was that coaches would wear their gear.
Belichick rejected the concept on principle, arguing that some NFL executive in New York shouldn't be telling grown men how to dress. He's a coach, not a fashion model, after all, and the whole thing felt ridiculous.
That didn't mean he could ignore it forever, so when presented with all of the acceptable items to wear, Belichick purposefully chose what he believed was the least fashionable choice … the humble grey hoodie. He soon even chopped the sleeves off of it, often with crooked and sloppy cuts, perhaps in an effort to make it less attractive.
Belichick was wrong on this, of course.
He was a fashion model, making the minimalist attire so popular that grey Patriots sweatshirts have been a huge seller for years in New England, often the No. 1 seller. A signature line was created and Nike, which took over the league's appeal deal, hawks the "Belichick Hood-Gray." They even come in women's sizes.
Belichick wouldn't confirm the genesis of the story when I asked him about it in 2012. He didn't deny it either or stop the line of questioning or explain much of anything though.
He just, as is his way, changed the subject, claiming he liked the hooded sweatshirt for practical purposes.
"It's comfortable," he said. "I carry stuff in my pouch."
What about chopping off the sleeves?
"I have short arms," he noted.
And that was that.
So now we come to the camo – or lack thereof. Wearing that single pin feels like an ode to Jennifer Aniston's character in "Office Space," willing to wear the minimum amount of "flare" to fill the requirement while at the same time making a quiet statement to its overall ridiculousness. No different than a pink swoosh and nothing else.
We have to wear this to prove our patriotism?
Is he once again opposed to the league office telling him how to dress, in this case for a marketing campaign built around supporting the troops, which he already does in ways far bigger than his attire?
So far, Belichick isn't saying. He never does say much though.
That's part of the deal for the NFL's great anti-hero. Figure it out for yourself. Or don't.
He really doesn't care what anyone, from Roger Goodell on down, thinks. You can't doubt his support of the military or the fight against cancer or whatever else comes up.
Mainly, he's onto Buffalo – looking to get the Pats to 10-0, which is his actual job after all.