Friday, February 8, 2008

Patriot Games

In case you've been living in a fallout shelter sealed off from outside contact for the last week, last Sunday most of the rest of the known universe outside of New England (and the New England diaspora) got the Super Bowl result they wanted to see.

About the only positive thing to come out of this whole situation from our perspective that we have the new ability and desire to mock Bill Simmons the way that fans of the other 31 NFL franchises have likely been doing for a while now.

You know... it's not just that you jinxed the team, Bill. You don't need me to point that out to you. You did it in a tedious and obnoxious fashion, imputing motivations to people that make no bloody sense whatsoever. Yes, when we saw that the Chargers took out the Colts, the parallel to the Rockets beating the Lakers in '86 did cross some of our minds. But hardly any of us thought that either the Lakers or Colts lost on purpose subconsciously because they somehow knew the Celtics/Patriots were going to beat them. And if we did, we kept that nonsense to ourselves.

There, I said it. And I used to like Simmons, for which I have been much ridiculed by my fellow Baseball Think Factory dwellers.

Now every team that has anything like the kind of success the Patriots have had in the last eight years are going to get their share of bandwagon fans. Every team is going to have its share of obnxoious fans, and those two categories are going to share some overlap.

But, taking a broader perspective, this phenomenon will never cease to be weird to those of us old enough to be adults who have been following this team all our lives.

New England had a football team for years mostly out of a combination of inertia and the fact that Boston is the #7 media market in the nation (and were once higher than that.) They ranked a distant fourth in the hearts and minds of Boston-area sports fans among professional sports teams.

Part of this was the fact that they played in a crappy stadium way out in the periphery of Metro Boston, whereas the Celtics and Bruins played downtown and Fenway Park was a relatively short ride on the T. For many Boston sportswriters, this meant "Out of sight, out of mind." To go to a Patriots game involved sitting for an eternity on a long stretch of Route 1 that's possibly the least scenic stretch of road in the entire state, both before and after the game, navigating one's way in and out of expensive unpaved parking lots that often got muddy, followed by a long schlep to the stadium. The stadium itself was mostly cold, slightly bent aluminum benches that seemed to attract snow and ice like magnets during late season games; many fans bought personal pizzas so they could sit on the cardboard instead of on ice-encrusted aluminum.

And all of that is before mentioned their general lack of success, and a general lack of noted personalities of any kind. I'm not merely talking about titles or even team records; the Pats never really commanded anyone's attention. They were not the worst franchise in the league, but may have been the least noteworthy one. If you were to come up with a list of "Boston/New England Sports Heroes of the 20th Century," there would be at least a dozen Celtics (start with Bird, Russell, and Cousy and work your way down) and a dozen Red Sox (Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, and Pudge Fisk to name a few) on the list, not to mention several Bruins (Orr, Bourque, and Esposito for starters) and even a couple of boxers (Marciano and Hagler) and a pair of runners (Joan Benoit, Bill Rogers) before you got to any Patriots.

I don't mean to overstate this. Not to say that every season was bereft of hope. Most of their "good" seasons, many of which blur together in the mind, they finished somewhere between 9-7 and 11-5 and usually involved having to win either a playoff game or a crucial late-season contest on the road in either Denver or Miami. Which you could pretty much count on never happening. (Well, it did happen once, in 1986, but considering what happened after that, perhaps we were better off if it hadn't happened then either; for one thing, I wouldn't have had to add this run-on sentence to this essay.) And during the "bad" seasons, things could get really embarassing; while they weren't quite as bad as the New Orleans Saints, to name one, they could make up for that in other ways. Like that 1-15 season where a female reporter named Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the Patriots' locker room, and in the course of doing so became as famous as anyone else associated with the team that year. If that wasn't bad enough, the owner of the time - Victor "Remington shaves so close, I bought the company!" Kiam - made a crude joke about her to the press. As best as I can remember the joke:

Q: What do Lisa Olson and Saddam Hussein have in common?
A: Both got to see Patriot missles up close.

Imagine rooting for a team like that.

Now imagine rooting for a team like that when your schoolmates are breaking ranks left and right. The NFL, partly because of the way the TV contracts are written, is more of a national phenomenon insofar as there seem to be lots more fans who pick teams based on something other than local civic affinity than there are in other pro sports leagues. In the 1980s there were plenty of older folks in New England who remember a time when the New York Giants were the "local" team. Some of those people, particularly in Connecticut, never abandoned Big Blue for the fledgling AFL franchise in Boston - and a fair number of them passed that affiliation down to their offspring. Teams with big national followings who were on TV a lot sold a lot of merchandise in my hometown in the 70s and 80s, from the "Steel Curtain" Steelers to the "America's Team" Cowboys to the "Silver & Black" Raiders. My own brother became enthralled with Dan Marino and his Dolphins, a fan affiliation he retains to this day. My stepfather, born and raised in Worcester like me, grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. Heck, towards the end of some years the Pats would fail to sell all their tickets and get blacked out of broadcast TV, meaning that it was actually easier to follow some of the teams mentioned above. (Remember, these were days before instant results on the web or rolling boards of out-of-town scores on TV - hell, we had to guess where the first down marker was.) Little wonder that it looked for a season or so like the team was heading to what looked like greener pastures in St. Louis.

Usually fans of most of these other teams had nothing in particular against the Patriots. There was no reason to, unless you rooted for a division rival. It would have been a waste of perfectly good sports hate better spent on the Raiders or Cowboys or 49ers or Redskins or something.

Times sometimes change. First the Bruins systematically eroded their fan base by cutting corners and shipping anyone good enough to command serious money out of town, and before long they were losing 50+ games a year and replacing the Pats at the bottom of the pecking order. Then as the glow of Golden Age of Bird, McHale, and Parrish faded, the Celtics hit the skids and spent much of the 1990s near the bottom of the league. The Red Sox remained Topic #1, but Foxboro seemed a lot closer.

If you had told me at the dawn of the century that the Patriots, after one last year of the usual futility, would have seven straight winning seasons, six postseason berths, five AFC Championship Game appearances, four Super Bowls, and three Super Bowl titles, I'd have said that you were ready for a padded room. (And no fan of any team in any sport would turn down that deal if they were offered it.)

But not only that. A lifetime of cheering for this team and making it something of a matter of personal pride that you never bailed on them doesn't prepare you for the dynamics of this season. Not that we couldn't see it coming. Aside from a coach that has, to put it mildly, a public relations problem, some players that one sometimes wishes one did not have to root for (not that most NFL teams don't have at least one guy like that) on your team, and all sorts of other controversies ("running up the score," various complaints about officiating) there's a lot of ammunition lying around- enough that certain sports humor sites have been converted to round-the-clock Patriots-hate.

But those of us who have kept the faith have seen it all and experienced nearly the entire range of sports fandom, from objects of pity to middle-of-the-road to scrappy underdogs to perennial contenders to the team, above all others, that everybody else loves to hate. And there may yet be more acts to come.

It will most definitely not be easy, but it might help if we found someone to steal Gisele Bundchen away from Tom Brady. The last time Brady played back-to-back games that were this bad, he was bedding Tara Reid. It's part of my Billy Joel theory that explains how much cheesier his music became after he bagged Christie Brinkley, which conveniently enough also explains why Coldplay's first post-Gwyneth Paltrow album, X&Y, was mostly lame. I suppose at least Tom's taste in women has improved.

And, really, whatever happens from here on out, it's been a hell of a ride.

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