I love sports. I find comfort in the clarity that they provide in an otherwise muddled world: there are good guys and bad, clear lines drawn, a known set of rules, and people who keep watch to make sure those rules are followed. Generally speaking I’m a very cynical person, but for whatever reason, I place some weird faith in the the process of athletic competition. And I want there to be beauty and fairness and goodness in it. I want to be able to believe that what happens on the court or the field is emblematic of something bigger. The backstories matter to me.
Which is why I found myself profoundly disappointed when the New England Patriots came from behind to pull off the biggest Super Bowl upset in history last Sunday. Like the kind of disappointment that’s usually reserved for when the Giants lose. And I will neither confirm nor deny whether or not the post-game drive home was filled with some pointed expletive-laced remarks, to which my boyfriend wisely chose not to respond.
I felt like the bad guys won.
The original idea for this post was a pre-game rallying cry of sorts: it was about how, despite the fact that the Giants were out of it, I would stay invested in the outcome of the game by embracing the hate I have for the Patriots—and I was going to invite everyone to do the same. I was going to talk about all the hate: for Belichick and his ridiculous sweatshirts. For Brady and his perfect face and his stupid pom-pom hat and his avocado ice cream. I was going to talk about what cheaters they all are, and I was very eager to draw attention to the fact that Brady is a Trump supporter. How much stronger of a metaphor could this writer ask for?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it together in time to finish it before the big game, so all of my witty observations were wasted.
But over the last few days, I realized something: my hate isn’t distributed evenly across the franchise, but rather is heavily weighted on the Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick. As I said, backstories matter to me, and Belichick’s is a scowling, cold, jowly, win-at-all-costs kind of narrative.
In a Washington Post article, Sally Jenkins describes Belichick’s team philosophy, one which is widely based on the notion that team cohesiveness is built on flagellation of all players, regardless of position or celebrity status or years on the team. And it works because Brady signs off on it—he allows Belichick to deride him in front of the team. In the article, Jenkins quotes Brady’s father:
If you can shoot the big dog, all the other dogs in the pack are going to pay attention. . . . And the players love it because it signals that they’re all in this together. . . . When [Brady] gets knocked down, they all kind of revel in it.
When Brady gets knocked down, they all kind of revel in it. That’s how Belichick builds unity on his team. He withholds praise, doles out derision mercilessly, and discards players with a machine-like willingness as one would trading cards. Because ends justify means. Because money and power. Because winning. Because winning.
And the saddest part is that it works. Belichick’s notions about how to build a strong team does, in fact, lead to a plethora of Super Bowl victories and Best-There-Ever-Was statuses. Being callous and cruel pays off sometimes—a fact that I seem to understand about the real world, but can’t quite get my head around when it comes to sports.
Now, for all the disclaimers:
- I am fully aware that there is a very dark underbelly to the world of sports: I know athletes get away with rape and domestic abuse; I know there are Lance Armstrongs in every sport; I know that people play dirty.
- I have no illusions about other teams being all warm and gooey—I understand that winning takes discipline and grit and criticism, and yes, even some yelling.
- And finally, I will admit that I might be singing a different tune if it was the Giants that Belichick was coaching to so many Super Bowls. Jealousy is nasty sometimes and for that hypocrisy, I take some responsibility.
I’m not naive about what the world of sports is. But that’s not the point—the point is what it could be. I look around these days and see the world pulling itself apart with fear and hatred, with bans and walls and greed—and I’m not sure I have any faith in what the wider world could be. Which is why, I suppose, I want to believe that there’s fairness, equity, and justice in the world of sports. And sometimes there just isn’t.
But hey, I’ve survived a lifetime of being a Knick fan—I can survive anything.