Note from the editor: This article was originally published a week after Super Bowl XLIX. Due to the release of the "Deflategate" report, however, it has once again become relevant. The paragraph on Ted Wells' report has been added to bring the article up to date. Enjoy.
In the days before and after the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX – their fourth trophy since Bill Belichick became the team's head coach – people came out of the woodwork to give their opinion on the most successful NFL franchise of the 21st century in the wake of what is now known as "Deflategate".
Jerome Bettis called the Patriots "felons". Charles Haley believed the team's Super Bowls are tainted. Jerry Rice called them "cheaters". Mark Brunell cried. Joe Montana and Troy Aikman offered opinions, as did former Panthers' general manager Marty Hurney. Mark Brunell cried some more. Don Shula called the Patriots' head coach "Belicheat". Skip Bayless, Peter King, Michael Rosenberg – all were crying foul. Mark Brunell was crying literally.
The Patriots should have been removed from the Super Bowl. Belichick should have been suspended. Tom Brady too. Team owner Robert Kraft should have fired his head coach immediately. Take away a draft pick. Heck, take away all their draft picks. The Patriots' legacy is tainted. They cheated their way to championships; they used deception and God-knows-what. New England's trophies deserve only one thing.
The world and future generations have to know that the Patriots are only successful because they break rules. It is as simple as that. Just ask any non-biased sports fans (which, apparently, is everyone not rooting for Boston's franchises), they will tell you the same, because they know what happened. Patriots fans and their warped perception of reality clearly do not.
There is only one problem: we have officially entered Bizarro World.
In case you do not know this term, it is taken from DC Comics and refers to a world, where, basically speaking, Bill Belichick loves talking to the media, Ras-I Dowling is indestructible and Aaron Hernandez just won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. In short: it is a place where everything is upside-down, where reason and logic do not apply.
Sounds familiar? Welcome to the myth of the asterisk.
Journalists, fans, players and coaches are arguing that a dark cloud is hanging over the Patriots' accomplishments, due to two controversies: "Spygate" and "Deflategate". The scandals have two things in common. First, they are centered around the New England Patriots, and second, they have been completely over-blown by the media and sports fans – often doing so without any actual knowledge of either affair (*cough* John Tomase *cough* Chris Mortensen *cough*).
Make no mistake, though, New England has pushed the boundaries of the rule book in 2007. It is doubtful, however, that "Spygate" gave them any kind of competitive advantage and it can be argued that the team simply tried to take advantage of the wording of the 2007 Game Operations Manual. Still, the league deemed the infraction worthy of a punishment – and that is all she wrote.
Thus, the Patriots and their success get scrutinized ever since. Here is a question, though: why are they the only team to get treated that way?
Why not the Denver Broncos and their salary cap infractions? Or the New Orleans Saints' "Bountygate"-scandal? Why not the Miami Dolphins' tampering charges or the Seattle Seahawks' practice violations? Why not any other team in the league? Where are their asterisks?
The first answer to those questions is as simple as it is the reason the Patriots are the number one target of cheating accusations: success. No other team in the league has been as relevant as the Patriots have been in the 21st century. Neither the Broncos, nor the Saints, nor the Seahawks – there will not be any cries for asterisks since neither team has rivaled the success the Patriots have had.
New England has won four Super Bowls in the past 14 seasons; six AFC titles, 12 division crowns. They are the gold-standard of success in the National Football League. However, success arouses envy. Therefore, if a chance to attack the most successful franchise in the NFL presents itself, people jump aboard as quickly as they can – it stirs controversy, thus creates attention, thus creates clicks.
Jerome Bettis and Charles Haley jumped aboard. Jerry "sticky fingers" Rice jumped aboard. Peter King, Don Shula and countless others jumped aboard as well.
The second answer is as follows: we live in the time of social media. Everyone has an opinion and it is relatively easy to spread said opinion via mediums like Twitter or Facebook. Those opinions do not need to be based on facts or research, they just have to be. This leads to fact and fiction often being used synonymously. CBS Boston's Michael Hurley wrote an excellent article dealing with this topic, in which he uses the methods deployed by his brethren to counter them.
As our very own Alec Shane once put it, the Patriots live so deep inside some people's heads that they care more about them than their own teams (*cough* Bob Kravitz *cough* Gregg Doyel *cough*). As long as the Patriots remain as successful as they have been in the Brady-Belichick era, people will keep criticizing them. They will keep trying to taint their accomplishments.
They will keep crying for the asterisk.
It is more probable than not that Ted Wells' report does not change a thing one way or the other. Due to its vague theories, inconclusive findings and the way in which facts are presented (for more on the language of the report, click here) it can be read whichever way the reader wants it to be read. If you think that the Patriots are a shady organization to begin with, you will find support of this in the report. If you think the Patriots are wrongfully accused of wrongdoing, you will also find support of this in the report.
One thing is sure, though: Wells' report – especially when it is not read critically – adds more fuel to the passionate fire inside those, who want to tarnish the Patriots and their success. It is not hard to pick out phrases like "generally aware" or "more probable than not". It is not hard to turn them into catchy headlines even without reading the entire 243 pages or analyzing its shortcomings. It is not hard to jump to conclusions or to take theories as facts.
It is, as explained above, not hard to hate the New England Patriots and their quarterback.
Cherish this hate, Patriots fans, since it is the ultimate verdict that you root for the most successful franchise in the league. If there ever comes a day the team fades into obscurity, so will the voices crying for its downfall.
This day, however, is not today. The Patriots are the rightful champions. As their head coach put it, they were the best team in the regular season and the best team in the postseason. They have earned their fourth Lombardi Trophy by beating the defending champions. The team and its coaching staff could have collapsed under the weight of "Deflategate" but they did not. They stood tall and won their biggest game of the season.
Fair and square. No asterisk necessary.