America’s Team?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]I fell asleep.

To say this is surprising is an understatement. I mean, I don’t fall asleep easily even under normal circumstances. Yes, over the last week, for a work project, I reversed day and night and I had been up for close to two days with a brief nap in between … but still: This was the Super Bowl and my team, the Patriots were playing.

Even weirder, though, is that, though I missed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, I don’t seem to be bothered by this fact. Now that takes some explanation – this seemed weird even to me, at first anyway.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that I don’t think I ever actually expected the Patriots to lose. And now, that takes some unpacking – it’s more than just Pats fan arrogance!! I think – especially since, in the third quarter, I thought they were going to lose. I thought I thought they were going to lose anyway … but, somehow …

My most vivid memory of the game, before I went to my bedroom and fell asleep in the third quarter I mean, was of Bill Belichick on the sideline looking like Bill Belichick. Thing is, he didn’t even look mad. He didn’t look happy, to be sure, but he didn’t look any less happy than he did at the finish of “America the Beautiful” when the camera cut to him, which was funny as hell because then he looked like someone had just shot his dog.

And yet here they were, getting their butts kicked and he looked, not bright or sunny obviously, but not even mad and not even particularly intense – not by Belichick standards anyway. Just composed and focused. Down 25 points in the Super Bowl, a scoring gap – chasm – larger than anyone had ever previously overcome.

And I went to sleep.

I got up a few hours later to use the bathroom. I knew that the game was over. I didn’t check my phone. There were still some people around that had come over to watch, and one saw me and asked, “Did you see the ending?” and I said, “No,” and went to the bathroom.

This is not normal behavior for me. But I knew they hadn’t lost. And I was tired.

I went back to my room, checked the score, saw 34-28, nodded, and went back to sleep.

I don’t think this is the famous arrogance of the Patriots fan, either – though I can see why it would sound like it. Rather … I just couldn’t fathom them losing. I never entertained it.

The Patriots were not going to lose to Roger Goodell.

Now, make no mistake: Football is not a morality play. Sports should not be conceived of as a morality play and I think it is bad for us as a people that we are so often tempted to characterize them as such. We do it – I get that – but it’s not a good thing. Which is why I have nothing but contempt for Goodell for making this season into an actual morality play.

I have spent my life studying American politics. Its history, its laws, its underlying thought – the meaning of America. I don’t want to get too far into the intricacies of American Exceptionalism or the moral meaning of America, but there is a sense that America is about believing certain things – believing in certain things. It is for this reason that the current commonplace characterization of the New England Patriots concerns me – if we want America to be great, this is where we should look.

And no, I am not defending the excesses of so many of the team’s insufferable fans. I don’t care about that; many people do not wear victory well, but this is nothing new. Frankly, I could devote a whole piece to my concerns about people who too closely identity with a team and its fortunes – it concerns me that some of these fans may not have independent sources of self-respect and self-worth in their lives that, well, the validation of millionaires playing with a ball – to say nothing of billionaires playing with the lives of those millionaires – is the dominant source of gratification they have. And I mean no condescension here, but rather wish for Americans – for people – to have lives filled with things that give them purpose and meaning.

I love sport, but because of how it can raise us up and demonstrate what we can be. In that regard, I want us all to be more than mere fans.

To this point, I believe those kinds of fulfilling lives can, do, and should come through education, hard work, and discipline – virtues that I believe that the New England Patriots exemplify. Not that other teams do not, but I think Belichick is special in this regard.

I am not going to re-litigate SpyGate or DeflateGate here, but even if we posit that they happened as Goodell would have us believe, it simply cannot account for the success of the New England franchise. Not even close.

Consider for a moment how Belichick is characterized by the sports world today, the fans, the media – whomever. Now consider who he is. He’s the son of two educators – a football coach who wrote books on the craft and a school teacher. He spent many of his formative years at Annapolis and was deeply influenced by the solidarity of the Navy which informs his team-first, Do Your Job approach. Instead of a big football program, he earned a degree in economics at an elite liberal arts institution of higher learning and applies it to his decision-making processes. He is known to be fiercely loyal to his people and respected by members of the communities he has worked in — if you don’t want to take my word for it, ask Jim Brown.

David Halberstam enjoying an invigorating jaunt through the Vietnam War.

Yes, he gives the press a hard time, but he also gave what NFL Films claimed was unprecedented access for their documentaries and is famous for giving in-depth answers to real football questions – perhaps, as arguably the greatest living football historian on the planet, he’s trying to induce the press to ask better questions so he can fulfill the other role in the double entendre of the title (and perhaps a nod to one of the great works in American letters produced by Henry Adams) of Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam’s biography of him: The Education of a Coach.

Learning. Discipline. Loyalty. Hard work.

(Whenever a person such as David Freakin’ Halberstam decides to write a book about anyone, much less an unkempt, gruff football coach, it’s worth asking why.)

To the extent, then, that the Patriots so effectively embody these traits so widely revered as key components to the vision of what makes America great, the team should be revered.

And yet the team is vilified despite its success. To me, that signals something very disturbing in America: People can’t believe the Patriots can be that good. Which is to say: They don’t believe the virtues enumerated above actually work.

Instead, it is believed that the Patriots are cheaters. This fact disturbs me.

America refuses to believe that these virtues can actually lead to the kind of success we’ve seen.

That frustrates me. But I continue to believe. And I had to believe all the more so with so much on the line this season – by which I do not mean just the Super Bowl. I mean the Patriots had once again been subjected to the notion that their success is tainted by shenanigans, that is not the function of the aforementioned virtues but something more nefarious.

Perhaps it will be said I’m a huge nerd about these things, and, well, guilty as charged. But I do believe in them, and in the discipline that is Belichick’s team, even if I don’t practice it as much in my own life as I wish I did. But I believe in it. And I believed that, with the stakes on the line of proving that that is what the team really is about, they would prove it so — stolen draft picks be damned.

Looking back, I now realize I never really entertained any doubt that they would win the Super Bowl … really this whole season. This is a strange feeling for a Red Sox fan who remembers the dark days before 2004, who still feels pangs of 2003, who has basically blacked out portions of 1986 from his memory despite the erased areas being bookended by other memories. Watching them win with Brady benched was fun. I was sad to see Gronk go down, but I didn’t flinch in worry. I barely even watched the Houston playoff game.

Belichick, Brady, and company were not going to lose to Goodell and the mockery he sought to make of the work they have put in. They would prevail. They had to.

And don’t get me wrong: I know good doesn’t always magically take over. Bad things happen, I get that. I have serious reservations about some bad things that I feel have happened to this country of late which I will not get into here but have addressed elsewhere. But this is different. Those things – I saw those coming years out, and see them as part of larger more tectonic forces.

This championship, though, there was a matter of control; this instance was about skill, preparation, work, and will. And certainly, the Atlanta Falcons put in their own share. But, even hampered by lost picks and a system designed to impose parity, I felt that we knew who best exemplified what it took to succeed – those virtues that we, as Americans, embrace as critical to success and should rightly celebrate when they are rewarded.

And so, in the third quarter, even thinking I saw no way for the Patriots to win, something that should have had me in fits and stressed and upset …

I fell asleep.

I’m not even mad. Yeah, I missed the most thrilling comeback in football in the history of ever, that is disappointing. But I can watch the game on tape. I feel an odd … peace. I’ve got hope. The virtues by God, they work.

Follow James on Twitter @TheReverendum. Check out his other work here, or read his explanation of Belichick’s ineligible receiver trickery here.

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