As the NFL regular season enters its final weeks, the New England Patriots again are among the favorites to advance to the Super Bowl. When the team won its first championship in 2002, only months after the 9/11 terror attacks, people across the country cheered for the underdogs wearing red, white, and blue. But now, fans of other teams have tired of the Patriots’ foul-tempered coach, their impossibly charmed quarterback, and the endless run of winning seasons. What happens when a team goes from lovable upstarts to relentless empire?
I remember what I saw, and that’s my truth. Adam Vinatieri kicked the football, and it was hard to track through a woolly snowstorm, but it looked like it might drift weakly to the right, and then it corrected its course, and then it just kept going and going, as if ushered by the palms of a friendly deity.
I was watching the game at a party. When he kicked the ball, I got into a crouch and started leaning to the right, lower and lower, as the football kept going on its improbable, slow-motion, line-drive, 45-yard journey through the uprights. Everyone else jumped and cheered, but I was too low and sideways, and I plopped onto the ground, stabbing myself with the keys in my front pocket. It was the best kind of pain, like when you’re a kid and your loose tooth falls out.
Vinatieri’s kick gave the New England Patriots a last-minute tie in their 2002 AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. The Patriots then scored on the opening drive of overtime. After watching the dramatic win, we spilled onto the streets of downtown Boston. There were barely any cars out, even though it was Saturday night. The fresh snowfall created a surreal hush. Strangers walked by with incredulous smiles and euphoric shrugs: Did that really just happen?
Two weeks later, the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI. Confetti rained down from the ceiling of the Louisiana Superdome, and the team mounted a podium for the post-game ceremony. The game’s MVP, a young and unproven quarterback named Tom Brady, put his hands on top of his head, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune: Did that really just happen? He was the picture of innocence.
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I started thinking about football last week after reading Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers, an intellectual history of the late 20th century and winner of the 2012 Bancroft Prize. Rodgers argues that dominant models about national purpose and economic stability started to disintegrate in the 1970s and 1980s, replaced by a “contagion of metaphors” – a free market of individual choices, fluid identities, and multiple competing visions on how to create a good society. In the epilogue, however, he discusses how in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, we briefly returned to an older way of defining ourselves, bound together by mutual responsibility and national purpose.
It is obviously absurd to invest sports with any of the significance of a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people. Yet in the aftermath of that terrible day, football provided one way to cope with tragedy, a type of cultural comfort food.
My memories of that Patriots season mix with memories of the mood after September 11. When the Patriots hosted the Jets in the first game after the attack, the team honored the three brothers of New England lineman Joe Andruzzi, all of whom were New York City firefighters. During the Super Bowl halftime show, the names of the dead scrolled down as U2 sang “When the Streets Have No Name.” When New England owner Robert Kraft accepted the Lombardi Trophy, he cast his underdog team as a metaphor for a unified national purpose. “Today,” he proclaimed, “we are all Patriots.”
It was easy, in that moment, to think of the Patriots as something bigger than sports. They seemed like an embodiment of integrity. Amidst the hype and pomp of the Super Bowl pre-game, the Patriots had opted to be introduced as a team, rather than as individuals. What better symbol of a people confronting a massive challenge, bound together as one?
Anyone outside New England might now find it difficult to recall or admit, but those Patriots were lovable. Bill Belichick had loaded the team with low-cost, high-character veterans, and when Drew Bledsoe got hit so hard that blood filled his lungs, the sixth-round draft pick Brady was a capable replacement. Still, New England was just 5-5 when Bledsoe was ready to return. Belichick stuck with the hardworking, measured Brady, and the team finished the season with six straight wins.
In the playoffs, they were kissed by fortune, fulfilling the cliché of a “team of destiny.” Vinatieri’s kick in the “Snow Bowl” was possible thanks to the correct interpretation of the now-infamous “Tuck Rule” – the Patriots kept possession even if Brady’s mishandling of the ball looked, smelled, and tasted like a fumble. Brady got hurt in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he was relieved by Bledsoe, the most overqualified backup in the NFL. And in the Super Bowl, the Patriots survived the high-velocity attack of the heavily favored St. Louis Rams due, in large part, to the arrogance of Rams’ head coach Mike Martz – the Patriots sometimes rushed only two down linemen to better defend the Rams’ receivers, yet Martz kept calling pass plays rather than handing off to the superlative Marshall Faulk. St. Louis nevertheless wore down the New England defense, tying the game with 1:30 left, creating the circumstances that allowed for Brady to lead another dramatic drive and for Vinatieri to nail yet another game-winning field goal.
A few days after the Super Bowl, while writing an email to a friend, I signed off: “The Patriots represent everything that is good about America.” I don’t think I was being ironic.
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“We are all Patriots.” That’s a messier proposition in 2014. Daniel Rodgers maintains in his book that by the Iraq War, the Bush administration was using to the language of personal choice and market incentives, abandoning the possibility of a common American purpose. Obama’s first campaign spoke to a hunger for that purpose, but his presidency has testified to an enduring, depressing politics of fracture.
What if football still serves as a national metaphor? The NFL now confronts (or fails to confront) the emerging research on the effects of concussions, a culture saturated with pseudo-militaristic posers, the obvious abuse of performance enhancing drugs, a crisis over the problem of domestic abuse, and a hypocritical, self-preserving commissioner who prattles about “protecting the shield” while milking more dollars out of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. If we are all Patriots, are we about ignorant violence and the excesses of free-market capitalism? Are we the worst that the United States has to offer?
I’m not sure. Cheering for the Patriots remains a continuous delight, after all. The Belichick-Brady Patriots represent an unbroken, impressive pursuit of excellence, with more than a decade of winning seasons, high-stakes playoff games, and extraordinary feats, including two more Super Bowl titles and an undefeated regular season.
And yet, that sense of innocence from 2002 feels like a lifetime ago. You can’t really claim the moral high ground after the “Spygate” cheating scandal of 2007-2008, when the league disciplined the Patriots for videotaping another team’s coaching signals. Moreover, the Patriots have been so good for so long that today’s average football fan detests them, especially the glamour-boy Brady and evil emperor Belichick. Cheering for the Patriots, to a neutral observer, must seem like cheering for the Yankees.
I know, too, that I’m no longer as invested in my sports teams. The Patriots provide no common currency with my neighbors and acquaintances in Memphis. I no longer watch the games surrounded by my longtime friends in Boston, and I’m no longer a single grad student with ample time to goof off and obsess about sports. On Sundays, more often than not, I peek at scores on my phone and then watch a little while my kids nap. Maybe football hasn’t changed as much as I have.
But at least I don’t cheer for the Jets.
Aram Goudsouzian is the chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. His books include Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear and King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.