UPDATE (Feb. 11, 2024, 11:00 p.m. E.T.): Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to victory over the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22, in overtime. This is Mahomes' third Super Bowl win.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the NFL was at the center of a political firestorm, from then-President Donald Trump calling kneeling players “sons of b------” to the league’s blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and the subsequent emergency meetings. But as we head into Super Bowl LVII this Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, it’s clear that time has passed.
The NFL is at the absolute zenith of its power, breaking television ratings records seemingly every week and hoovering up money at a flabbergasting rate; it’s beginning to look as if commissioner Roger Goodell’s once-widely mocked 2010 prediction that his league would reach $25 billion in revenue by 2027 is going to end up being conservative. Outside of some sad, lonely lunatics screaming into their mirrors about Taylor Swift, NFL fans are pretty happy — excited to watch football.
I wonder if Patrick Mahomes is one of the primary reasons why.
The Chiefs quarterback is the best player in the NFL right now. The two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion has, at the age of 28, firmly established himself as successor to Tom Brady as the face of the league and perhaps, someday, as the greatest of all time. Mahomes is ubiquitous on television commercials and a burgeoning entrepreneur; as if the NFL’s dominance over Major League Baseball weren’t obvious enough, we’ve reached the point that its MVP quarterback is now a primary member of a baseball team’s ownership group. He is the league’s signature star.
But unlike predecessors, Mahomes has been able to straddle the worlds of sports and politics and culture in a savvier way than Brady or (especially) more recent challenger Aaron Rodgers. And his skills have, in their own way, helped the NFL pull itself out of its late 2010s funk.
One of the stranger and yet formative moments in recent NFL history was when Goodell, in the midst of the 2020 George Floyd protests, not only apologized for “not listening to players earlier,” but actually said the words “Black Lives Matter” (albeit while looking a little bit like a hostage in his basement). Fairly or not, this was the moment Goodell regained control of the narrative. And you know who forced him into doing it? Patrick Mahomes.
The NFL had struggled with how to respond to the protests, particularly considering how much credibility it had lost with Black athletes after the Kaepernick situation. Some players had spoken out, some hadn’t, and it wasn’t clear which direction the NFL would go. Then on June 1, Mahomes posted this:
The league’s best player, a biracial crossover star, had weighed in. Three days later, Mahomes organized a group of Black stars to call on the NFL itself to take a stronger stand.
Goodell listened; he made his statement five days after that. Mahomes would end up leading the charge to make Arrowhead Stadium, along with other NFL stadiums, a voter registration site for the 2020 election, following in the wake of NBA player activism. And he found a way to do it without becoming a political target, unlike fellow athlete-activist LeBron James. The NFL still has “End Racism” in its end zones and on its helmets: Relatively innocuous symbolism, but progress nonetheless.
This is part of the Mahomes magic. It’s how he can even make a moment like this at the White House with Travis Kelce funny.
Mahomes’ play on the field that will doubtless define his legacy. And there is a case to be made that this quarterback is more Michael Jordan than Tom Brady. Like Jordan, Mahomes is becoming a superstar amidst a pack of emerging fellow stars challenging his crown, from Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow to Buffalo’s Josh Allen to Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. But like Jordan contemporaries Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley, Mahomes' excellent rivals also can’t get past the transcendent star just ahead of them. He keeps beating all of them in the playoffs, and hoarding championships.
If the Chiefs win on Sunday, Mahomes will win his second Super Bowl in a row, something only six other quarterbacks have ever done. Only five other quarterbacks have ever won three Super Bowls total. And remember: He’s only 28.
History is long, and fans are fickle. Sustainable love affairs with our athletic heroes are few and far between. (There was a time when we all loved Brady, too.)
Mahomes has set himself up to become one of the greatest NFL players in history. But perhaps even more impressive, he’s become one of the most important. He has been pivotal on and off the field, and has assisted the league he represents in navigating one of the trickiest periods in its history. Patrick Mahomes is an incredible NFL quarterback. But he may be remembered for his ability to, somehow, be even more than that.