It was pretty easy cheering against the New England Patriots yesterday. I’m a New York Giants fan, and the Giants specialize in breaking Patriot hearts, in shattering Patriot dreams–think Superbowl XLII and Superbowl XLVI; the Patriots are a New England team, and New Yorkers dislike all New England teams; the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick are notorious benders and tweakers of the rules of the game–think ‘Deflategate‘; the Atlanta Falcons were the underdogs, aiming to bring sporting success to a city that could use some good news–Boston is blase about all its sports championships. And so on. (Bear with me while I make note of these marketing clichés.) And then, this year, there was the political subtext–which wasn’t so sub, after all. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are Trump fans; the former has been used as campaign fodder by Trump himself.
Say no more.
Apparently, we had an unambiguous moral universe set up for us. Good vs. Evil. And Evil triumphed. Moreover, Evil did so thanks to an amazing, unprecedented comeback that ensured its quarterback, coach, and team have good claims–statistical and otherwise–on being anointed one of the greatest of all time. (The Patriots’ win also allowed the obnoxious Richard Spencer‘s crowing on Twitter about how he was cheering for one of the ‘whitest’ teams in the NFL to be fruitfully rewarded.) The arc of this moral universe is long and its local curvature doesn’t seem to indicate that it is bending in the right direction.
Sporting ability does not seem to correlate with virtue–of any sort. This sad fact has often been noted and commented on by sports fans; moral reprobates win championships and prize money galore all the time; good guys often finish last. Indeed, the playing of sport itself does not seem to make the world a better place. Football, the particular sport under scrutiny here, has done a great deal to suggest that it does not deserve spectatorial attention, indulgence, or tolerance so long as it continues to be an inherently unsafe activity organized and managed in an unsafe fashion. There are, after all, good reasons to believe NFL owners have systematically misrepresented the long-term dangers of the sport and will not allow an open, unbiased investigation into its longstanding concussion and traumatic brain injury problems. (The systematic misrepresentation of masculinity, the glorification of violence, the tolerance of domestic violence by the NFL’s commissioners, its serving as a propaganda arm of the military, are but some of the many other sins that are laid at the NFL’s door. The loud, sexist, drunk, NFL fan is a well-known American archetype–a frat boy in a team cap.)
This is all pretty disappointing stuff but it is also enlightening. We should not expect too much when we look at a sports field; least of all should we expect to find moral or political arguments justified there. The right of a people to nationhood will not, despite many wins for their sports teams, receive confirmation on a sports field; the success of a national ideology will not be confirmed by a win in a World Cup. The good news for the sports fan and the sports marketer is that this warning is not an easy one to take on board; sports fields are symbolic battlegrounds, and they’ll remain that way. At least till we find another domain of human endeavor that lends itself so easily to such easy exploitation by story tellers and myth makers.