It’s only football, only a game.
That’s true, and so of course there’s all kinds of “game” behavior.
And I’m fine with games, fine with competition and showing provincial pride and chest-thumping. Roaring when your team scores. High fiving your fellow fans. All that.
That’s the way it’s always been. It’s what winning and losing in sports is, what you do and how you do it.
Of course it’s childish and silly and just for fun.
And so there are fans, those who root for the team from their place, their city and region.
They dress up in the colors of their teams, wear jerseys with numbers and names on them.
And go out and yell and get rowdy.
And it also happens that some go overboard and get arrested, some even killed because of being too dumb or rooting too hard, however you’d describe it. For most people it’s an arguably good way to let of steam.
My region is New England. That’s where I live.
I grew up without a team from my area, so I rooted for the Giants.
Y. A. Tittle. My first NFL quarterback.
I remember the shock of seeing him without his helmet for the first time – the guy was BALD!!
But that’s ok, they were my team before they were called the G-men.
I still like them.
The Patriots? Well, they were mostly an embarrassment in the early years. The 40 early years. They had their moments, but that’s what they were – moments. Nothing consistent. Nothing that went on for any amount of time.
One of the die hard fans with some money bought the team. Robert Kraft, you may have heard of him.
And he brought in Bill Parcels came to coach the Patriots. He was tough, and they got tough.
Disciplined. Strategic. Tough.
I don’t know if anyone knew back then the contribution to those teams that his defensive coordinator made.
But I’m pretty sure Robert Kraft did. That’s why he went after Bill Belichick when he could. And got him.
They drafted Drew Bledsoe for quarterback. Couldn’t do much but throw. But he was fun to watch when he did that.
As most football fans know, Bledsoe got injured in a game against the New York Jets.
Football’s a tough game. People get hurt. Some find that so objectionable they diss the whole sport. That’s fine if they want to be that way. As the saying goes injuries are part of the game. They’re part of every active sport really. But football has people smashing into each other. Oh, they have pads. But they still get hurt, sometimes really badly.
Some people take that injuring part of the game into their rooting. Under Sean Payton, the Saints even paid a bounty for their team to injure the opposition. Anything to win.
When Bledsoe went down, Tom Brady stepped up. “Tom who?” we said.
He was handsome, and really, really good. Not a scrambler but a great in-the-pocket passer.
Honestly, I’d say New England fans were surprised by how well the team did, and has done, with him as quarterback.
And he married a supermodel and now they’re worth a gajillion dollars, to round up.
Now sport is analog. It’s life in a microcosm. Our team’s struggle is our struggle – in life. They win our victories and lose our defeats. That’s why people watch it. That’s why they get so involved. Non-sports fans or critics of sport really don’t understand that. Or its benefit that way.
The Patriots did and have done so well for so long that the resentment has grown so much that it’s full-fledged hatred. No one wants to lose that much. And anyone who wins that much must be doing something illegal. Life can’t be that unfair. The analog takes on a new passion.
And so there was Spygate. Belichick’s minion(s) looking at the signals of their foes.
Now we know how they do it! They cheat! They’ve cheated all along. We knew it!!
There was no living it down either. Every success – and there has been little else than success – falls under the pall of that event.
There is no repenting, no saying you’re sorry, paying your fine and moving on.
No. If you win after that, you must be winning because of that. Or something like that.
I wanted to write this before Superbowl 49 is played. I did not want to know its outcome as I wrote down these feelings.
The Patriots have been accused now of deflating footballs in the AFC championship game. Like Spygate, their attackers say it was a deliberate act to gain competitive advantage.
It has dominated – not just been a part of – DOMINATED – sports news for over a week.
Their honest proclamations of innocence have been mocked and derided. They’ve been called liars and cheats.
I also wanted to write this before I knew the outcome of that investigation.
Because I’m a Patriots fan. I live in Massachusetts. Most people here are Patriots fans, just like most people living in Indiana are Colts fans, most people in Colorado are Broncos fans, etc.
And you know what? I like those teams. They’re not the enemy. And when they beat the Patriots it’s because they played better football. I like football. It’s fun to watch.
So at the point of the season when a team has achieved major success, has won a bunch of football games and captured their conference title and is heading to the Superbowl, they’re supposed to be celebrated, admired and held in high esteem. It’s part of the analog.
But instead, my Patriots have been maligned, accused and humiliated by people with great word skills. Great acting skills and speaking skills.
They’re supposed to be ashamed of winning because, after all, they cheated.
At this point, I almost don’t care if they did. Almost. It matters greatly that they did or didn’t. If they’re bold-face lying like they’re portrayed to be then I think that owner who bought the team when it was miserable will do some things. With resolve, because that’s who he is.
But what matters more is the rush to judgment, the presumption of guilt and outright ridicule of a championship team.
The Patriots aren’t the ones to be ashamed of that.
I think I do understand the pent up anger when a team keeps winning as they have – against your team that keeps losing. Patriot fans had 40 years of that. Losing to teams like the Dolphins and the Bills. Great teams that I loved to watch (Larry Csonka!).
I’ve even read some fans say that Patriot fans would do the same if it was another team that cheated. But other teams have cheated and it hasn’t happened.
I do know that I’ve never seen this level of vitriol, this kind of poison in the air. Not in the analog, game world of sports fandom.
And I’ll call it sick without reservation. It would be sick if I was doing it. It’s sick when others do it.
As fan behavior, what it’s really saying is that the people who are calling the Patriots cheaters have a difficult time achieving in life without cheating.
The Patriots aren’t saints. They’re football players. Really good ones.
And Belichick is a phenomenal coach. This doesn’t exonerate him from what happened at Spygate. But he was fined, and paid it. And then kept winning. And winning against everyone.
See, part of the reason for their success – and if this is cheating then I want to be a cheater in the worst way – is the ability tune out the outside world and focus on the job at hand. And do it. Really, really well. There’s that analog again; it’s why we Patriots love that team.
And if I was a betting man – and I’m not – I would say this whole thing will galvanize the team to win Superbowl 49 convincingly.
Of course, those who hate them will put an asterisk next to anything they do forever, but in so doing they put an asterisk next to their own lives. There’s a pride that they’re trying to recover through juvenile tactics. From grade school I remember if there was someone the kids didn’t like, they made up stories about them. Bad ones. Stories that got them in trouble.
There’s really only one word for that: malice. And though it takes time, it hurts those who practice it worse than their victims.