Thursday, October 1, 2020
October 1, 2020: Sports Scandals: The Patriots
[On September 28th, 1920, four key members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to throwing the 1919 World Series, a pivotal turning point in the unfolding Black Sox scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Black Sox and four other sports scandals, past and present!]
On two ways the record-breaking NFL dynasty’s scandals foreshadowed the age of Trump.
Full disclosure: I really hate the Patriots. But in truth, my personal perspective on the team has evolved greatly over the last two decades, an arc that I would argue has a great deal to do with the team’s scandals. Due to a combination of my ex-wife’s fandom, my 2003 move to the Boston area, and the team’s historic underdog status, I cheered the Pats on in their 2001 and 2003 Super Bowl triumphs. Having previously lived in Philly and as a big fan of Donovan McNabb, in 2004 I rooted for the Eagles, but with no animosity toward the Pats. But the combination of 2007’s Spygate scandal (and more exactly the collective response from Pats fans to those cheating revelations, on which more below) and my growing distaste for the mythos around Tom Brady led me to increasing hostility toward the team in the course of that undefeated season, and over the 13 years since they’ve become the only sports team in my life to date that I genuinely, passionately despise (and that was before their multi-layered connections to Donald Trump!). So yes, it’s fair to say that it’s hard for me to write a post about them that remains entirely analytical and objective.
I’m still gonna analyze them, though, and if and where I fall short I have no doubt that the many Pats fans in my life will let me hear about it. More exactly, I believe two layers to the responses to the Pats’ scandals foreshadowed dominant narratives surrounding the rise, presidency, and era of Trump. For one thing, I’ve seen time and again arguments that Belichick and company aren’t cheaters, they’re just a coach and team who are willing to “do whatever it takes to gain a competitive advantage” (and thus to win). Of course sports figures and teams have cheated since the dawn of time (to use a favorite student phrase), but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such brazen dismissals from sports fanbases or commentators of the ethics or morality of cheating in favor of a “win at all costs” mentality. And I would say something very similar of Donald Trump and the 2010s GOP—dirty tricks have always been part of the political landscape, but I’ve never seen a political party more dedicated to nor more blatant in stating the idea that the goal is “winning,” that everyone else in politics and society are “adversaries” to be defeated at all costs, that cheating (such as blatant voting rights repressions) is not only acceptable but necessary in order to achieve those goals.
In my extensive experiences with both New England sports radio and Patriots fans (especially the younger ones, including my sons’ peers and my FSU students), I’ve also encountered a second, even more disturbing and Trump-like mindset: the idea that the league is out to get them. In this perspective, the cheating scandals not only were not a big deal, but also and more importantly were conspiracies concocted by those aforementioned evil adversaries, turning the Pats into the true victims of these stories. This mindset can permeate everywhere, making it nearly impossible to recognize even basic facts: I remember after the Pats Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams, a game in which the Rams were charged with six more penalties than the Pats (for 45 more yards), hearing a Pats fan student lament that “the refs were against us and tried to make us lose.” Given that Donald Trump is rivaled only by Andrew Johnson in his ability to see enemies everywhere, to depict himself as the victim of “fake news” and many other conspiracies, and to gin up similar sentiments from his cult-like fans, it seems only fitting that the scandal-ridden Patriots, more than any other sports franchise, have become so closely connected to Trump and his presidency.
Last ScandalStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports scandals you’d highlight?