Subverting the Subverted (Or Why We Love to Hate the Patriots)
I’m writing this essay less than 24 hours after watching the Philadelphia Eagles win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, besting the incumbent New England Patriots by a score of 41-33. People everywhere rejoiced as the Good Guys in Green sealed their victory with a strip-sack of league MVP Tom Brady, who stole the award away from their own signal caller Carson Wentz, who was putting together an MVP years until he suffered a season ending knee injury brought on by Brady repeatedly jabbing a pin into a voodoo doll wearing #11. (You can’t prove it didn’t happen.) If you - like me - didn’t have a dog in this particular fight, you probably uttered the phrase, “I just hope it’s a good game,” several times over the last two weeks. And we all got our wish. Even while watching it, I had a feeling it would go down as an instant classic, not unlike Vince Young’s epic unseating of the USC Trojans all those years ago. I hope we are all prepared to see that Eagles trick play during every televised Eagles game for the next 50 years. (Which we should, because it was awesome.)
I feel I should add an addendum to my previous statements. Over the last two weeks I did say, “I just hope it’s a good game,” quite a few times... But it was always closely followed by, “And I hope the Patriots lose.” And I did have the feeling that I the game I was watching would be an instant classic... if the Patriots lost. That’s how I phrased it, by the way. Not, “I hope the Eagles win,” but rather, “I hope the Patriots lose.” There is a subtle but important difference between those two statements. It didn’t really matter who won this year (beause it wasn’t going to be the Packers) so long as Pat Patriot had to hang his ridiculously large head in defeat. I wasn’t so much an Eagles last night as I was NOT a Patriot fan.
This is not an uncommon sentiment in sports. I recently witnessed a colleague provide the following answer when asked who his favorite baseball team was, “Anyone but the Yankees.” When a guy I recently met told me his favorite team was the Patriots I said, “Huh, how’d you let that happen?” It is a truism of sports fandom: we love to hate teams that win too much. I’m sure there exist in the world at least 5 columns in which the Patriots, Yankees, and Crimson Tide are referred to as the “Axis of Evil.” Yes, this hatred runs deep enough that we are going to allow sports writers to compare these teams to terrorists. You would be just in pointing that I just did that as well. At one point while perusing Instragram during commercials, I saw a post from a girl I briefly dated in which she was wearing a Patriots jersey and made a face like she had announced the death of her beloved dog. It is entirely possible I would be less sad about the dog. I know what I just said.
As with the Axis of Evil, I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out this paradox. We love it when our teams win. It is, in fact, the entire point of the game. So it is at the very least odd that we hate teams who have became too good at the point of the game.
This practice doesn’t seem to transfer to other aspects of life. We don’t hate surgeons who are too good at surgery. We don’t hate mechanics who are too good at fixing cars. We don’t hate grocers who are too good at not crushing your eggs with canned goods. So why do we hate teams that win too much?
Our societal obsession with narrative becomes when we try to answer this question. There is a reason the entire nation - with the exception of a pocket in Ohio (and possibly near St. Louis) - rallied behind the Chicago Cubs during the 2016 World Series. People who don’t watch baseball EVER watched that game adorned in Cubbie blue. We love an underdog story. We love subversion of the narrative. And the Philadelphia Eagles played that love like a fiddle this post-season, winning games in which the other team was favored in Philadelphia. The replacement of injured QB Wentz with journeyman Nick Foles late in the year seemed in many ways too perfect. It almost made the story too good, which I guess means I should hate it?
Subverting the narrative has become so ubiquitous that has almost replaced the narrative itself. None of us walked into Star Wars: The Last Jedi and expected the Rebellion to lose. That’s not the story we want; it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If you want to read the Bible as metaphor, it is easy to see that even ancient story-tellers recognized this intrinsic desire within people. We want to hear the story of David knocking out Goliath, not of Goliath crushing a teenage boy into the Biblical equalivant of a pulp. (I guess it would still be a pulp?) When teams like New England win an epic number of championships in a short time period it subverts our subverted narrative. And this doesn’t sit well with us, though we often don’t understand why. It’s as though someone snuck into your office and moved everything a 1/4 inch to the left. It just feels off.
You will likely never understand yourself exhaustively. But the fact that I am irritated that the New York Yankees now own the two best hitters in baseball should tell us something about human nature. We are wired to love it when the loser wins. This is why the movie “Rocky” resonates in your soul. Seeing someone - fictional or otherwise - accomplish what was thought to be impossible provides us a moment of escape - at its best - allows us to believe that we might be capable of the miraculous too. When teams like New England or Alabama subvert us back to reality, we are harshly reminded that most of the time the world doesn’t actually work that way. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that the Galatic Empire had a better payrolll and signed more free agents (Kylo Ren) and that the Rebels will have to watch the big game from their couches at home.
But we also have to remember that there cannot be a protagonist without an antagonist. We can only celebrate an underdog victory if there was a force in opposition to said victory. Every good story has a good villain. And Sunday, the Eagles had a doozy. And that makes the story all the better. Because the Patriots lost.
I’m not arguing for the necessity of the existence of Evil. But the New England Patriots - and teams like them - are a pivotal part of the narrative. In a strange way, they give us hope that “our” team will be the one to beat them next year. They enable us to rally around the idea that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t how it has to be. And, transitively, they empower us to believe we can be more than is expected of us; that we can rise above our circumstances in the face of all our doubters and emerge victorious.
And they should be thanked for that... I guess.