Living near Los Angeles, the persistent lack of an NFL franchise closer than San Diego has effectively dismantled my football habit. Don’t get me wrong, I still love football, and I’ve found other teams to care about in the long interval between Georgia Frontiere’s Benedict Arnold impersonation and the current rumors that Magic Johnson might pull a pigskin out of his hat. There have been a few favorites, but I’ve probably followed the Buccaneers more consistently than anyone else–primarily because Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme was the West-Coast offense of defenses. Rooting for Tampa’s defense to take the field in the late nineties was an irresistible novelty; their near stuffing of the despised Rams in the 2000 NFC Championship; the way Brooks, Sapp, et al. made Michael Vick look like a fleet-footed deer in headlights during his early years with Atlanta. It was a pleasure to see. Still, since I had no real connection with the city or the team, I was less than thrilled with their Super Bowl victory in 2002, probably because they had fired Tony Dungy; who, in the crucible of my imagination, possesses the optimal blend of stoicism, vision and paternal love.
Sure, there’s a certain freedom in being disconnected from any one team. My mercenary sensibilities can be bought with an interesting 1st-round draft pick or the wag of an underdog tale, but the real low point of these fifteen years in the desert of disenfranchisement was my jeering the New England Patriots’ run at a perfect record during the 2007 season. I wasn’t the only one, of course, but I kept dubious company. I joined the surviving members of the 1972 Dophins–a cantankerous and unlikable crew–the entire city of New York, and the enemies of excellence everywhere when I made that call. I’ve regretted it ever since.
That regret hit home on Sunday as I watched the loudmouth Jets defeat the Patriots at home. My sympathies don’t run too deep for New England, mind you, because even though his talent is unreproachable, I’ve never much cared for Belichick. Add to that the Patriots’ gluttonous portion of success these past years, and you’d think I would have been happy to see them fall, but I wasn’t. I felt petty and wrong for having thrown my lot in with the Giants in Super Bowl-shouldn’t-we-finally-kill-the-Roman-Numerals. New England’s run at perfection in the 2007 season was probably the only chance I’ll have in my lifetime to see something like it; instead, I joined the same chant of mediocrity that turns Shakespeare into a typewriting monkey.
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, wrote about the pettiness that gripped me that year. In his thin volume, The Present Age, Kierkegaard describes our current cultural malaise, not to mention my small mindedness, with the sort of prescience normally reserved for prophets. He contrasted the present age with the preceding age of passion, in which blood and bone pummeled irony. In contrast, “[T]he present age,” he wrote, “is an age of advertisement… an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” Kierkegaard pegged the cynicism of our age, its stifling bureaucracies of fashion, the ridiculous glut of our obscure and expert tastes.
Kierkegaard uses the analogy of a precious jewel trapped on a precarious ice flow to make his point. In an age of passion, men would die trying to reach the jewel; those who perished in the attempt would be sung as heroes for their courage, in spite of their failure, and if one should actually reach the jewel, brave the thin ice and succeed in accomplishing the impossible, she would be lauded as an immortal, lavished with gifts–her genius celebrated. But in the present age, the region where the ice became dangerous would be Caution taped, and adventurers would be applauded for merely approaching the portion of the ice where it became dangerous. Anyone who crossed the tape and put herself in real danger would be derided as a fool to have done so when the danger was so clearly marked, doubly so if she perished in the attempt. And if someone actually managed to cross the treacherous crust and retrieve the jewel, well, at first she would be praised, laureled as a hero. Eventually, however, the age would turn against her, and the hero’s feat would be seen as nothing more than a trick, something easily accomplished by anyone with the right breading, the proper background, enough money. In the present age, everyone is a baby Einstein waiting for his genius to emerge, a Michael Jordan if only he believes.
The consequence of this is not the proliferation of excellence, but its migration. We level monumental achievements with statistics and disquisitions on privilege. That’s exactly what I did with the Patriots. Of course, many of you may have had good cause to root against New England. Perhaps you were a New York fan. Maybe you never liked the Patriots. Indeed, one of the reasons I love sports is because the unvarnished dislike of an opposing team needs no reflection. There are no consequences beyond the field of play. Things are not so clean in the world. In the world it is admirable to live by the principle that “each man’s death diminishes me,” but in sports, I can revel in the defeat of my enemy. Pray for his weakness. Sing his wasted dreams. The thing is, I had nothing against New England, just the cowardly desire to see my theory confirmed that no team could go undefeated in the NFL again. The game had become too complicated: free agency, salary caps, mega markets, the talent flight, take your pick.
I was a cynic, and I’m sorry for it, because there are few places in the world where courage can play without politics; sport is one. Not always, of course, but sometimes, occasionally, something perfect emerges: a throw, a catch, a slide, a game, and almost, once again, a season. A perfect season.
I would have liked to have seen that, I think. I probably won’t get another chance.