The New England Patriots made more history this past Sunday. By defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, they set another slew of postseason victory and statistical records. I won’t recount them because doing so clearly isn’t an effective persuasion technique. Plus, we get it. They’re awesome, and they do awesome things.
But why then is it likely, statistically speaking, that you hate them? Who would hate what’s awesome?
Leading up to Sunday’s bouts to see who would be facing off in in this season’s Super Bowl, I read and heard what have become mantras in our sports cultures. “Please anyone but the Patriots. They always win.” “Seeing the Patriots play in the Super Bowl again would be boring.” “The Patriots don’t deserve to go because they cheated.” All of these statements are nonsensical on their own. They become even worse when they’re combined and released in Megazord form:
“I’m cheering against the evil empire.”
Whaaaat? They’re evil because they do great things? Something’s really amiss here, and it’s not just that you made a Masshole feel sympathy for the New York Yankees and their fans. You see, the Yankees were the original evil empire as they won a shit ton of World Series titles in the 1990s. Fans grew jealous of the empire the Yanks had built and dubbed the team evil. Ironically, Red Sox Nation was home to some of the most ardent detractors. According to them, the Yankees didn’t deserve to win because…they were from New York?
No, there’s something deeper and more troubling going on here than regional rivalries and jealousy. Jealousy in itself is neither a negative or positive emotion. A boyfriend who is jealous of the attention his girlfriend is giving to another guy chooses whether he wants to talk to her or yell at her. Likewise, an athlete who witnesses a competitor continuously winning can channel his jealousy into longer, harder hours of training or he can spend that time whining instead. Clearly, only the former is productive. Except, somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that the latter is as well.
Maybe we complain about greatness because, as fans, we have no other recourse. Unlike athletes who have a say in the outcome of games, we are mostly passive observers who are forced to accept what we witness. Yet, athletes must accept what happens as well, and shouldn’t it be harder for them to come to terms with a loss directly brought about by their poor play than it is for us to come to terms with that same loss we merely watched? What gives us (and them too, really) the right to wish winning away rather than admiring it and aspiring to be it?
The answer to that question is buried in the term “evil empire”— what is called a “package deal” in philosophy. A package deal is when two ideas which don’t have to go together are thought of us inexplicably intertwined. Think of it like peanut butter and jelly. It’s simply conceded that they always go together, but anyone from New England can tell you that peanut butter goes just as well with Fluff. Likewise, in the United States of America, we’ve come to believe that empires, and empire building, are always evil even though everything great we have is a product of some sort of empire.
Breaking Bad is the quintessential example of American antagonism toward empire building. Taken solely as an artistic portrayal of evil, the show is not only brilliantly executed but morally commendable. However, as its protagonist Walter White transforms from doormat science teacher to sociopathic meth kingpin, his desire to dominate others is shown as a necessary component of empire building. This part of the theme is so strong that some viewers even hail White as a hero for his ability to go from a have to have not, as they likely identify with his personal struggle and fantasize about doing the same themselves. The danger here is that they’ve internalized the belief that to build an empire you have to do some evil stuff.
That evil stuff is exactly what people mean when they call the Patriots cheaters. It’s where Spygate, Deflategate, complaints about the communications equipment in Gillette Stadium, and any other accusations of malfeasance come from. It’s generally assumed that anyone who has succeeded on any level did so by unfairly stepping on others. And accepting this assumption leads to a whole host of conclusions you must also accept. If everyone cheats, then it’s ok to cheat…as long as you’re on your way up. But when you reach the top, you need to step out of the way because if no one gets to the top fairly, everyone deserves equal time there. And if you don’t abide by this unspoken rule, you’re the most evil of them all—the arrogant, selfish oppressor.
The truth is, whether you bristle and/or scoff at this next statement or not, the New England Patriots have never cheated. There is a multitude of simple and clear responses to every accusation that has ever been levied at them. Their success has been earned by being stronger, faster, and smarter and working harder. If you can’t except those two statements, if you’re dismissing me as a homer or deluded or naive or whatever the hip term is right now, then you are part of the real evil empire.
You demean greatness. You cheer for its downfall even if it means accepting lesser in your life. Why wouldn’t you, who football is solely entertainment for, want to watch the best teams play the best football as often as possible? Because for you its not about creating greatness. It’s about destroying it before it does more harm than you believe it already has. In other words, you damn great as bad simply to make yourself feel better. And when you do, you embolden others to follow suit, creating a culture in which empires aren’t built—they’re destroyed.
And there is nothing more evil than that.