This has not been the best week to be a Patriots fan — but let’s face it, it’s far from the worst. I’ll take a winning team with a “cheating” coach over a 1-15 team with Rod Rust at the helm. That really stinks, and as Tim Curry said in Clue: “I know because I was there.”
What surprises me about all this, as usual, is the notion that sports represent a “gentlemanly competition” where the rules, not the outcome of the games, are paramount. For all the talk of Bill Belichick’s reputation taking “hits,” let’s ask: For what reason did we celebrate Belichick before this incident? He’s always been secretive and obnoxious figure, and now it seems everyone “knew” he went to great and possibly rule-breaking lengths to obtain information. League MVP LaDanian Tomlinson said the Patriots’ motto should be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” That’s pretty clever. But you have to be far more clever to actually win football games.
Here’s the thing: the Patriots won three Super Bowls by winning football games — the “model franchise” tag was applied to them by the same sportswriters who are now tearing down the castle. Remember Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? Rick Ankiel? Kirby Puckett? O.J.? Kobe? I do. And at some point, I realized that sports are just games, which is, for an otherwise rational adult, a long overdue realization. I actually called a friend of mine yesterday, a huge Barry Bonds apologist, and said I finally realized how he felt. Long enamored of the indisputable parts of Bonds’ greatness, he’s dealt with a lot of crap from those who cannot accept that Bonds is exceptional only because of his talent. There are similarities between Belichick and Bonds. Once there was evidence that these geniuses (and they both possess genius-level skill) had circumvented the rules, sportswriters let their collective wrath upon them, choosing to virtually ignore countless — literally countless — of other, similar incidents. The story pattern is binary: hero/villain, cheater/non-cheater. In real life, it’s not like that at all, and I can’t put it better than it is put in Zero Effect: “There are no evil guys; there are no innocent guys. There are just a bunch of guys.”
It has been hard for me, in the last few years, to summon team-specific sports love. More often, I am goaded into it. I admire Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning as much as I admire David Ortiz and Tom Brady. I am more enamored with skill and technique than, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, “laundry.” I admire greatness: I’m looking for who stands out, on the field, from the big bunch of guys in each league. When the Patriots lost to the Colts last year, instead of being crushed, I was proud of the team, short on skill, that maintained a near championship-level of play for 60 minutes on football’s biggest stage. It was a successful season.
On Sunday, a bunch of guys wearing Patriots uniforms will play a bunch of guys wearing Chargers uniforms. One of the guys on the Patriots fathered a child out of wedlock with a supermodel (despite his Catholic upbringing), and his coach will be three days removed from the largest fine in NFL history. Two of the guys in Chargers uniforms will be one year removed from steroid abuse suspensions. One of them stars in a brand-new, state-of-the-art Nike commercial. Find a hero and a villain if you must, but you won’t find that in the official record of the game, of which there is only one:
The box score.