WASHINGTON – I never knew how much fun it was to be loyal to a hated outlaw sports team until the whole world came down on my dear New England Patriots.
Having rooted over the years for Boston teams that many felt sorry for – God help us – and found psychologically interesting, it was a rush to hear MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough the other morning describe my Patriots as a “ruthless killing machine.” Wow!
It’s a long way from the early days of the quarterback-wide receiver combination of Babe Parilli and Gino Cappelletti (he was also a great kicker). Back then, many didn’t even take the upstart American Football League seriously. As a kid, I insisted on being faithful to our local guys, so I’ve been a Pats fan from the day they were created.
And I now understand far better what life is like for those who work as spinmeisters. In a fight like this, you look for whatever arguments come to hand and judge their merits later, in a quiet room with fellow fans.
If those footballs were deflated, why didn’t the refs, who handled them dozens of times, notice? Maybe the balls lost air. Besides, didn’t you catch the fact that Tom Brady did far better with the regulation, non-deflated balls in the second half of the Indianapolis Colts game? And anyway, everybody messes with the football, right?
All Patriots fans are Taylor Swift partisans these days: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” She didn’t invent the line, but many loyalists are using her buoyant and defiant lyrics to shake off the Pats’ critics as jealous souls who just can’t stand this team’s dominance in the long Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Already, I can imagine the sighs of impatience from those who think loyalty to professional sports teams is a silly and even pernicious waste of energy. Aren’t they just a bunch of businesses owned by rich guys who use them to make more money and stroke their already large egos by paying a share of that cash to athletes, some of whom get wealthy themselves? Didn’t we see what a moral mess the National Football League made of the Ray Rice affair?
And isn’t loyalty itself a questionable virtue that can lead people to overlook many ethical issues and to ignore more important moral callings?
On the last question, I share what the 19th-century philosopher Josiah Royce called a “loyalty to loyalty.” Of course loyalty can be misplaced, as Royce acknowledged. “A family engaged in a murderous feud, a pirate crew, a savage tribe, a Highland robber clan of the old days – these might constitute causes to which somebody has been, or is, profoundly loyal,” Royce wrote, and he agreed that such relationships are problematic.
But even though loyalties can be misplaced, a life lived without them makes no sense. They are defined by the legal scholar George Fletcher in his fine book “Loyalty” as obligations “implied in every person’s sense of being historically rooted in a set of defining familial, institutional, and national relationships.” There really are, he argues, “groups and individuals that have entered into our sense of who we are.”
For many, sports teams become part of this fabric, usually through powerful regional ties (I really do love New England), bonds of friendship (only a fellow fan could understand what it felt like to lose the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, or to win the “Snow Bowl” against the Raiders in 2002), and the draw of history (see everything above).
Do the owners of these teams exploit such feelings? You bet, which is why fans feel so outraged and betrayed when a team gets moved from one place to another. But is there anything intrinsically wrong with their loyalties, or with the admiration of fans for heroism in an athletic encounter involving “their” team? I don’t think so.
Given such strong sentiments, the people who own these teams have an obligation to stewardship that they don’t always discharge. Even as a profoundly loyal Patriots fan, I’d be upset if the team and the league simply threw a locker room attendant under the bus to get out of their problem. Loyalty runs both ways, and it most certainly extends to the locker room attendant. (And if he did deflate 11 balls in 90 seconds, he should have been in the Pro Bowl.)
But I know which side I’ll be on this Sunday, without any mental reservations. The Patriots, including the attendant, are my guys.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.