I was, admittedly, while growing up, a Buffalo Bills fan who dabbled in the 49ers. This fact was driven by three factors: (1) Jerry Rice, the greatest football player of all-time was my favorite player; (2) Both of these teams were really good; (3) The Patriots never sold out Sullivan Stadium and weren’t on television, even locally. With as much honesty as I can muster, it was reasons one and two that were probably the most relevant to my fandom.
That being said, my leanings swayed for good when Robert Kraft bought the team. Drew Bledsoe was the #1 pick, the logo was changed, and Bill Parcells was coming on as a coach. Optimism reigned and the Patriots would be playing on television. Access is important. You can’t root for a team you can’t watch play.
For the past 15 years, the Patriots have had unprecedented success. They’ve been fortunate to have one of the greatest coaches of all-time as well as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. Owner Kraft is equally important here. The Patriots have won 12 divisional titles, made nine conference titles games, and six Super Bowls. This makes them an outlier. No team has ever matched this success.
This comes, of course, with suspicion, considering the Patriots were fined and stripped of a draft pick in 2007-08 after they were caught breaking the rule in which they weren’t supposed to film the other team’s defensive signals. This incident, of course, is a topic for a much different article. Regardless of the team’s success, this “SpyGate” incident places an hypothetical asterisk next to the Patriots success. Unfortunately so. And it’s not because I’m a Patriots fan.
We live in a depressing world if we believe any sort of unprecedented success is achieved only through nefarious means.
Rightfully so, perhaps. We’re jaded by being let down by our heroes. People like Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds are good examples. The view of sports is an equal mixture of optimism and longing for fair play, but also of suspicion. Athletes used to the be good guys, the smiling faces on cereal boxes and commercials. “All-American” became not only an honor bestowed upon athletic success, but an adjective for a combination of morality, charm, and skill (and, usually, good looks).
Success viewed in the present is different than success viewed in hindsight, and I think we’ll see that in regard to the Patriots. During the Yankees run in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, there was a distain (one easily disregarded by New York fans who bathed themselves in other fan’s tears) because the Yankees could spend a little more — okay, well, a lot more — and lure free agents in a salary cap-free game. There was a resentment from the other fanbases. Looking back now, we see the great Derek Jeter and the great Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre and think, “Holy shit that team was stacked.” We’re not as angry anymore.
When we think of outliers, it’s unfortunate we can’t see them for what they are. The aforementioned Rice was an outlier, a not-terribly-fast receiver from a no-name school. He now owns pretty much every receiving record in the history books. Wayne Gretzky is in the same boat. “Outliers are more interesting,” said Malcolm Gladwell, “because they require us to come up with new and different explanations for success.” Einstein is an outlier; Bill Gates, too.
Calling the Patriots “cheaters” not only does the other franchises who’ve won Super Bowl titles a disservice (what, they couldn’t have just beaten the Patriots because they were a better team?), it does fandom a disservice. Of all the Patriots “transgressions” and “history,” the crimes they committed were accusations. They were found guilty of one crime, for which they paid heavily. It shouldn’t call into question their success before or after that incident — and certainly not seven years later.
I’m not saying sports are pure. There are teams and players seeking an advantage in all sports, some of these advantages small, some large, some even could be considered unfair. The players, too, hyper-competitive/hyper-masculine, are also not cleared. There are, as we see in all walks of life, people who are flawed, people who aren’t very nice. I’m not even saying we should suspend our disbelief that all is well within the sports world. We have a right to be cynical about our heroes. We’ve earned it.
But if we take away what’s great about sports — that these human beings, so like us, can perform on an athletic plane different from what we ever could; that this form of entertainment can contain some elements of the amazing/incredible/magical — then why watch?