The endless criticism and the piling on Bill Belichick has received about the 4th and 2 call has now reached a fever pitch. From coast to coast, pundits, fans, former players, former coaches and others have fallen all over themselves to attack the choice to go for it instead of punting. But the intensity and the sheer number of stories, column space, bandwidth, and on-air time devoted to this play call--one play call among the thousands made in the NFL this weekend--is not just limited to criticism of the call or of Belichick. Rather, it taps into, springs out of, and reflects a much deeper, longstanding hatred of the Patriots and their leader.
We've seen similar crescendos of Patriot-bashing like this three times in recent years. In 2007, the first wave was touched off by "Spygate," which dominated--I mean absolutely DOMINATED--the sports world for the week after the story broke, and never fully died down the rest of the season. Just as it was starting to fade came the utterly baseless John Tomase story (writtten and, incredibly, published without a shred of evidence to support it and later completely discredited and retracted) on the eve of Super Bowl 42 about New England's alleged videotaping of a Rams Super Bowl walkthrough practice in 2002. That story coupled with the Patriots' stunning loss to the Giants ushered in round two of the "pile on the Patriots" as people gloated while mocking the Pats, and bashing the team yet again. And now, after the fateful call and the reversal of fortune that happened Sunday, there is once more an undertone to the howls and rants being directed at Belichick and the Patriots this week. Welcome to the third wave of Patriot-hating---fast becoming the NFL world's favorite pastime.
Each of these three waves has been intensified by a fierce, deep-seated hatred--I don't think that's too strong a word--for the Patriots and Belichick. You can't get upset by things or people for which you have no feelings. And if the Patriots were your generic, run-of-the-mill NFL team, the kind that has a fan base but that never causes fans of other teams to foam at the mouth with rabid hatred, each of these waves would have been much smaller, much less intense, and would have petered out on the shore of the football world and washed back out to sea in the same newscycle. (Seriously, is there anyone out there who sits up at late at night cursing and thinking up new ways to hate the Jaguars? or the Lions? or the Seahawks? Of course not, why would you?).
But the Patriots are different and these great volleys of animosity coming their way now (as during "spygate" and the Super Bowl loss) are visceral and emotional, the products of a well-stoked, long-held agressive hatred of the Flying Elvii and the one in the hoodie. The intensity and the sheer amount of the hating, coming fromso many angles, leads me to wonder why the Patriots and their coach inspire such vitriol. To put the question most simply, why do so many people hate the Patriots?
There are good friends of mine--people who are rational and smart and sophisticated, people who hold down demanding professional positions, have homes and marriages and children, people who are delightful, charming companions and trusted friends--who get almost literally twisted up with rage if I mention the Pats or Belichick. These are people who aren't violent or dangerous, who are kind and decent, who probably don't have mean things to say about too many people. But when I talk about the Patriots suddenly the anger rises and and they become transformed.
So, again, I ask why do people hate Belichick and the Patriots? I'm a historian, not a psychologist, so I have no special training or insight to answer this question but I'll take a stab at it and offer a few possible reasons and invite readers to do the same. Here goes:
- Envy of their won-lost record and championships When the Pats upset the Rams in Super Bowl 36, they were the cute underdogs, not the bully on the block. But then they came back and won another title and then another and then went 16-0. Even when they lost Tom Brady and half their starting defense, they still went 11-5. It's almost unthinkable that this team could ever pull the occasional 4-12 record like most teams. Somewhere along the line, the Patriots went from underdog to top dog and then stayed at or near the top. And that's not an appealing quality when fans of most teams see their hometown favorites rise and fall and settle near the vast middle of the NFL. The fact that the Patriots just win and win and win makes them hard to love (for most) and easy to hate.
But the Colts always go 12-4 and have for years and who hates them? There's no better, more intense rivalry than Patriots-Colts but I don't think we Patriots fans hate the Colts (the Jets, maybe, but not the Colts). Who does? Now, it could be that because the Colts have that whole Eagle Scout/Sunday school picnic image going for them,or because they've only played in one Super Bowl and won only a single title (in Indy), they seem less threatening than the Patriots. Still, the Patriots' record and titles alone can't entirely explain the Patriot hatred or there would be such a thing as Colts hatred, too. So, perhaps it comes down to:
- Resentment of their secrecy and methods Now we're getting closer. The Patriots are notorious for witholding information and for shrouding their entire operation in secrecy. Getting inside that wall, I'm told, is nearly impossible and the Patriots never, ever, ever air their dirty laundry in public. There are no leaks in this organization and what happens in Foxboro seems to stay in Foxboro. Beyond that, the Pats seem not to care what people think of them. Their public image is not a favorable one and it must drive haters to distraction that the Pats don't seem to care that people don't like them, that public hostility and hatred bounces off this team. Call them the Teflon Patriots--no criticism sticks to them. They probably feed off of that and turn it to their advantage. "Never complain or explain," could be the the organization's motto, and they've won games and championships without opening up their locker room or their organization to outsiders, keeping all they do veiled under a thick blanket of secrecy and mystery.
Again, most teams try not to reveal much but the Patriots go to extraordinary lengths to withold even the most basic information. The sense that they're keeping something to themselves, that they're so stingy with something as straightforward as who's calling the plays, probably strikes many as proof that the Pats are up to no good. Secrecy added to pre-existing suspicion adds up to conspiracy in the eyes of many. The Patriots feed this with their hyper-closed method of operating, never caring that their stony silence is being misconstrued or that it feeds the hatred many have. If it does't help them win games--and popularity with fans or the sports media never does--the Patriots don't care, and a team that operates with such little regard for public opinion is bound to be the object of scorn and hatred of those who would like to think their (low) opinion would have an effect on the Patriots.
But it's hard to sustain an intense hatred for an large organization or for an ever-changing roster of players. To grow and flourish and sustain itself, a great wave of hatred needs a single, fixed, constant target. And if that single target is both wildly successful and maddeningly secretive, misunderstood and not the least concerned with correcting those misunderstandings, and completely dismissive of public opinion, all the better. Further, if that single target also regularly flouts conventional wisdom in a game as driven by conventional behavior as football, then this target becomes almost the holy grail--or, if you prefer a different metaphor, a perfect storm--of rage and animosity. And so, the third reason for the intensity of Patriot-hating:
- Bill Belichick's utterly unconventional methods and actions, coupled with his other-worldly success and secrecy, and the way it leaves many more conventional people deeply threatened I think this is the real key, because each of the three waves of Patriot-hatred are personally tied to Belichick. "Spygate" was about his coaching practices and although he apologized, took full responsibility, and paid a staggering fine, many believed that he wasn't "contrite" enough, that he didn't apologize sincerely, or that he was thumbing his nose at the conventional NFL establishment which has long tolerated stealing signs and snap counts but seemingly draws the line at high-tech taping--blue-collar crime is acceptable but not white-collar crime, as several have noted. The Super Bowl loss was also tied to Belichick and the loss was nearly overshadowed by the media furor over his leaving the field with a second left on the clock (after he congratulated the Giants coach), an act which was again deemed an affront to all that was good and decent and, once more, was deeply unconventional by NFL standards. And Sunday night, the current wave of hatred was kicked off with his statistically probable yet convention-defying decision to go for it on 4th and 2. In each instance Belichick did things his way, dared to defy the conventional wisdom of how coaches should coach or conduct themselves. Add to this the other things that make Belichick so clearly a breed apart from the vast majority of people who have had the title of NFL coach: he doesn't look like the stereotypical tough-guy coach, he went to college at Wesleyan where he majored in economics, and he never played pro football. And yet here he is, a deeply unconventional man long at the pinnacle of his profession, one dominated by people who are ruled by convention, who always do things by the book, who would never even think about, say, going for it on 4th down deep in their own territory. The fact that Belichick is so successful despite challenging nearly every bit of conventional behavior or wisdom--the fact that he dares to be so different and cares not at all what anyone else thinks of him--is a thing that could only threaten and anger those whose lives depend on following the conventions and caring only about what others think of them.
So this latest wave of Patriot hatred grows from at least three related sources, all of them united by the man in the middle of the storm and embedded in each of the causes. This is the latest outbreak of the intense Patriot-hating that we've seen before. It will ebb, but then it will rise again at some point in the future, whenever the Patriots win another big game, or another championship, or whenever Bill Belichick defies conventional wisdom in the arch-conventional NFL. Patriot-hating has been with us for awhile and it isn't going away anytime soon. All we can try to do, as fans, is to understand the sources from which it springs and learn to shrug it off--just like the guy in the hoodie does.