Populism and the Patriots
New Englanders and Pennsylvanians actually did go to war one time. It was over a claim by Connecticut on the Wyoming Valley in modern-day Pennsylvania, and it resulted in three decades of combat both before and just after the American Revolution that was later classified into the Pennamite-Yankee Wars. Thankfully, today we have giant men in pads to resolve our interstate tensions, and last night those two irascible regions went at it again in Super Bowl LII, one of the most wickedly exhilarating football games ever played. Both teams combined for the most yards in the history of the Super Bowl before the third quarter was even over. There were only two turnovers, an early pick thrown by Nick Foles and a strip sack that ended Tom Brady’s hope for a two-minutes-plus game-winning drive up the field. Otherwise it was mostly pristine offensive football, especially in the second half when the Patriots stopped being cute and started giving the ball to Rob Gronkowski. The Eagles ultimately pulled it off 41-33, their first league championship win in franchise history. Brady is now five-and-three in Super Bowls; the NFC East is his Achilles Heel, not just the New York Giants.
Before the game, much was made about how obnoxious the two fan bases are. On the Philadelphia side, this headline from the New York Daily News said it all: “Another Eagles fan arrested for punching police horse” (even in “Blazing Saddles” that only happened once). Also catching attention were Philadelphia cops methodically greasing their city’s poles so rowdy fans couldn’t climb them in the event the Eagles won (or lost). Patriots’ fans don’t go quite that far; they’re notorious mainly thanks to a guy we’ll call Marty. Marty is almost always from Quincy, Massachusetts. He spends every Patriots game at a bar guzzling Bud Light while shouting unyieldingly at the TV under the apparent delusion that he knows better than Bill Belichick how to coach an NFL team and self-victimizing on every call that doesn’t go his way, only to tone it down when his motheh shows up paht way through the fawth quawteh. We Pats fans of gentler stock loathe Marty just as much as everyone else, even if we think that accent has some charm yet.
This year, though, the spotlight was on the newly bandwagoned fans, all tens of millions of them, almost all of them begrudgingly in line behind Philadelphia. Southwest of New Haven, Connecticut, pretty much everyone was rooting for New England to lose. The Patriots have been too good for too long, barring too many teams from too many Super Bowls and garnering too many controversies along the way. First it was Spygate, Bill Belichick’s signals-recording infraction, which earned the Pats a reputation as the NSA of the NFL. Then it was Deflategate, Brady’s alleged surreptitious tampering with the air pressure inside footballs, currently believedby no onewho passed asecond-grade science class. The latest wild surmise was that the referees were throwing games to New England, on the ironclad evidence that the best team in the league is called on the fewest penalties and that a ref at one point smiled at Patriots players during their playoff win over Jacksonville.
The Patriots Truthers are loud, legion, kind of dumb—but they’re also emblematic of our age. We live in a time when large institutions are held in contempt, when elites are suspected of having obtained their status illegitimately and maintained it dishonestly. I’m more sympathetic to this populism than I might sound. A government that’s given us years of intrusive policy and fruitless war is going to evoke a backlash; a finance sector with fingerprints all over a wrecked economy deserves some public rage. But this attitude towards political authority has lately sucked in other sectors of power, too, and cast on them the same angry and deconstructive eye. The Patriots have brought some of this on themselves (Spygate, a PR strategy that has Belichick and Brady forever looking like they should be on the bridge of a Star Destroyer), but they’ve also fallen victim to this new public hostility towards the entrenched. No football team, after all, is more entrenched than New England, what with their five Super Bowl wins and Kraft’s seemingly unflappable friendship with the NFL commissioner.
That’s why they’ll always be more polarizing than were Joe Montana’s 49ers and even the Steel Curtain (despite Pittsburgh’s own alleged asterisks). It’s also why, despite that MAGA hat peeking out of Tom Brady’s locker, those who see the Pats as Team Trump are wrong. The public perception of them, at least, is more akin to the Clinton campaign, with all the attendant machinations and nefariousness that we believe lurk just beneath the imperious façade. Last night, Philadelphia’s deplorables derailed their machine and won all the catharsis that comes with beating the establishment. Congratulations to them and their fans—it isn’t war or even an election, but it still feels nice. Of course, some will say my presidential comparison is a clumsy one, that the NFL is a frivolous and fun spectacle that we shouldn’t politicize. Those people are unwoke and possibly racists. Ours is to be an age when we ruin everything with politics, and football long ago ceased to be an exception.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.