Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reckless disrespect for the truth

In the immortal words of 2 Live Crew, 'You're not used to people saying things like this. It's called criticism, and not a diss.'

As evidenced by this spot-on piece from's Page 2, I'm not the only one rolling his eyes at the transparent nonsense oozing out of Foxborough, Massachusetts, of late. It seems a growing segment of American sports fans have had it up to here with the New England Patriots' degradation fantasies.

Five years ago, when the Politburo of Conventional Football Wisdom gave the ramshackle Patriots no chance of beating the powerhouse Rams (remember them?), the Pats could legitimately claim that they were being disrespected. That was then. Now the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls. Now their quarterback is Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Now, despite an ugly first half of the season, no one dares count them out. No one. For the entire second half of the 2005 regular season, the story was "Here Come the Patriots." Since the playoffs began, the story has been "New England is Here, and It's Firing on All Cylinders." Even discussions of New England's weaknesses all tend to devolve into "Well, but the Patriots just know how to win ... " Diet Pepsi, Coors Light, Visa have spent the whole of 2005 kissing Patriot ass. For the New England Patriots to call themselves "disrespected" at this point doesn't just tax our patience. It insults our intelligence.

And yet they persist with this determination to be victims of a vast conspiracy of disrespect. Oh, how the Patriots and their fans love to dig up the press clippings from Week 9, when New England was 4-4 and just a game ahead of the Dolphins and Bills in the AFC East standings. Frothy with indignation, they point to stories that said the team was "in danger of not making the playoffs" or "hardly as dominant as in the past two years" or "not made up of god-kings delivered whole from the heavens in a flourish of holy trumpets." See? they cry. No one respects us! Woe unto any outsider with the stones to point out that, regardless of how they're playing right now, the Patriots just didn't play very well in the first half of the season. "Of course you'll say that. Just another hater." Show more recent clippings, stories fairly dripping with the juices of Patriot-love (ew), and you'll be telling it to the hand. "We've heard all we need to hear." And indeed they have, because it's clear what this is really about. This isn't about the New England Patriots, two-time defending NFL champions. This is about Boston, a first-class city with a terminal case of second-class syndrome. The Patriots and their fans are obsessed with perceptions of disrespect because that's all they know.

I lived in Cambridge, across the river from Boston, for a summer in the 1990s. It was only a few months, but it was long enough for me to learn a valuable lesson from a fellow named Lou DiIorio, who one day looked at me in my new Red Sox cap and warned: "Kid, if you know what's good for you, if you want to stay healthy, don't get involved with the Sox." His words, whispered across the Living/Arts copy desk of The Boston Globe, changed my life. (Not really.) That summer, I learned something about the Boston sports fan that has only been reinforced as my life drains away. I learned that the core quality, the sine qua non, of the Boston sports fan is the inferiority complex. And it's at its fiercest when it comes to the New York Yankees.

Boston sports fans have spent so many years under the jackboot of Yankee superiority that they've come to wear victimhood like a badge of honor, or at least like a Shriner's fez: It identifies them as a member of the tribe. But they've been wearing this fez for so long that, to stretch a metaphor, the damn thing has dropped down over their eyes and blinded them to reality. The Yankees, as we all know, are Goliath -- so that must mean the Red Sox are David, right? Right? Well, no. The Kansas City Royals are David. But the important thing is that Boston needs the Sox to be David. That's why when the franchise reversed a thousand years of futility to win the World Series in 2004, Red Sox Nation couldn't just wallow in the good vibrations. It had to canonize the Sox as the Little Underdogs That Could -- a ragtag collection of scrappy overachievers who brought down the Evil Empire. It was a dream come true, except for the "true" part. The truth, of course, is that the Red Sox have had the second-highest payroll in baseball for years, and the difference in 2004 was that they actually earned the money. But to point that out is to kill the buzz, man. So we'll just keep that fez pulled low.

Just as the Red Sox feel the need to be David, so do the Patriots. There's a big, big problem, however: The Patriots are already Goliath, and everyone outside the Hub of the Universe appears to know it. I know this pains the Boston sports fan deeply, but it must be said: The New England Patriots have become the New York Yankees. They win the Super Bowl every year. You see their faces everywhere. They're always on national TV (eight games in 2005). The only thing missing is that air of smug superiority that distinguishes Yankee fans. What you get instead with Patriot fans is smug inferiority. It's a paradox, or something: Yankee fans talk like winners even when the team is losing, while Patriot fans talk like losers even when the team is winning.

And that's why we're hearing this "disrespect" jive from the Patriots. The antenna of any Boston team can pick up only certain sounds. You can praise the Patriots all you want. They won't hear it, because their equipment doesn't work on that frequency:

• "You guys have played great these past six weeks!" "You saying we played like crap all the other weeks?"

• "The Pats really poured it on in the fourth quarter, there." "Oh, does that mean they just lollygagged through the first three? Huh?"

• "New England is peaking going into the playoffs." "What, you think they don't play with intensity every week?"

As I said last week, I have no doubt that this junk works. I'm sure the Patriots fire themselves up in the locker room by vowing to spite their critics. But it does make you wonder when -- or whether -- the Pats, the Red Sox or their fans will ever come around to saying, "The pressure is on us to win because we're champions," rather than, "Everybody expects us to lose, so let's go out and prove them wrong." The first statement is something a legend would say. It's what Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh or (ulp) Casey Stengel would say to challenge his troops. The second is something a politician would say to lower expectations, to make himself a smaller target -- to cushion the blow if he isn't, in fact, a champion. That's what I mean when I call it a loser's tactic.

The Patriots are winners. They ought to act like it.

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