BOSTON â€” Not even the grandest of American sports spectacles is immune to the nation's deep political divisions.
Patriots fans have spent nearly two full seasons being reminded of the close friendship between President Donald Trump and their team's three top figures â€” owner Robert Kraft, star quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
As the Super Bowl approaches, that has put the typically united Patriots Nation at odds over how hard to celebrate a team chasing its fifth Super Bowl win under Brady and Belichick. New England faces the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5.
Some fans in the northeastern states that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November presidential election say they're struggling to reconcile their football loyalties with their distaste for Trump. Many other fans â€” more than 1 million people voted for Trump in Massachusetts alone, Clinton won by less than 3,000 votes in New Hampshire and Trump picked up one of four electoral votes in Maine â€” say critics are simply injecting politics where it doesn't belong.
"It's pathetic. We have a double standard where if you admit you like Trump, you get blasted by the media," said Brian Craig, a Lowell, Massachusetts, Republican who voted for Trump. "If Brady endorsed Hillary, no one would care."
Plenty of people put politics aside completely when they root for their teams. But after an election that magnified the country's deep differences of opinion, the Super Bowl matchup offers easy symbolic foils for anyone inclined to play politics.
Trump's friendship with Brady has been fodder for sports talk radio and local news in New England since September 2015, when one of Trump's trademark red "Make America Great Again" hats was spotted in Brady's locker and the quarterback said it would be "great" if the GOP hopeful in a crowded primary field won it all.
Most of Atlanta is represented by longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who has been excoriated by Trump because he boycotted the inauguration and doesn't consider Trump a "legitimate" president because of intelligence reports of Russian involvement in the election. Trump won Georgia in November with more than 2 million votes.
"It's been very tough," said Segun Idowu, a Boston civil rights activist who grew up in Massachusetts, went to college in Atlanta, voted for Clinton and will likely be rooting for the Patriots. "The Trump versus Lewis metaphor seems apt to me."
Patrick Dugan, a Clinton voter from West Hartford, Connecticut, said his Patriots fanhood has become "increasingly lukewarm" because of the team's Trump connections.
"You can't put that genie back in the bottle," he said. "It's out there at this point. And once it's out there, it colours how you look at them, whether you want it to or not."
Trump drew attention to his relationships with the Patriots several times throughout his campaign and leading up to his inauguration, including an election eve rally where he read a glowing letter from Belichick and claimed Brady voted for him, prompting a denial from the quarterback's supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen.
Brady, for his part, hasn't revealed his vote and questioned this week why his long friendship with Trump is "such a big deal" after being asked whether he called the Republican to congratulate him, as Trump claimed in a speech attended by Kraft the night before his inauguration.
"If you know someone, it doesn't mean that you agree with everything they say or do," Brady said.
Indeed, few recent marriages of sports and politics have caused this much hand-wringing. There was relatively little furor when basketball megastar LeBron James â€” fresh off winning a title for the Cleveland Cavaliers â€” endorsed and stumped for Clinton in his home state of Ohio, which Trump won anyway; or when now-ousted Bills coach Rex Ryan introduced Trump at a campaign rally in Buffalo last year.
As president, Trump drew on his sports connections when he tapped New York Jets owner Woody Johnson as the next U.S. ambassador to Britain. And Peyton Manning, the retired Denver Broncos quarterback who won the Super Bowl last year, joined Trump and other leaders in Philadelphia on Thursday night as Republican lawmakers gathered to map out their congressional agenda.
Conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks show the Patriots have certainly won over some new fans because of the Trump ties.
And many in Patriots Nation are certainly dreaming of sweet revenge if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to hand the championship trophy to Brady. Goodell suspended Brady for four games at the start of this season for using underinflated footballs in a playoff game, a case that winded through two federal courts and spurred lots of disdain for Goodell among Patriots fans.
For plenty of others, the Trump association is just another reason to dislike a franchise that's enjoyed unprecedented success but has also been the part of two high profile cheating scandals ("Spygate" and "Deflategate") and whose coach cultivates a gruff, stand-offish persona.
"I want the Falcons to win for normal sports fan reasons, but I want the Patriots to lose in embarrassing fashion for political reasons," said Todd Moye, who grew up in Atlanta and now lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
As the Super Bowl approaches, some skeptical New Englanders say they've made their peace with politics and, for now, are just focused on the game.
"I have family members who support Trump. I'm not going to write them off, either," said Clinton voter Jack Peterson of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. "You just try to compartmentalize."
Follow Philip Marcelo at www.twitter.com/philmarcelo . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo
Philip Marcelo, The Associated Press