The Patriots won anyway. They missed Vince Wilfork in the middle, giving up almost all the yards, which may be a problem going forward. And they missed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, where they gave up the rest of the yards, which may also be a problem. Still, they won.
What we missed was a long video commentary on ethics and cheating – Sunday school tutting grafted onto a contest where people beat their brains in.
The first game of the 2015 NFL season, an event that the NFL and networks typically treat like a four-hour tone poem and inaugural address, instead stuck mainly to the game. Even Bob Costas, reliable rider of sport’s highest horses, made a plea for a better arbitration system in a new collective bargaining agreement, then bid us all move on. The last bit seemed so un-Costasian that you wonder if he truncated the let’s just get past this sentiment to signal that he was encouraged from on high to echo a company line. Which is a problem, because we are knee-deep in America’s silly season, and everyday citizens like you and me need to know what the New England Patriots mean for America.
Earlier this week, the longform dropped like a ton of takes about the hidden extent of 2007’s “Spygate” incident. The Patriots’ taping and signal stealing, it turned out, was far greater than originally reported, which explained Roger Goodell’s going balls-to-the-wall over “Ballghazi:” this offseason was his make-up call for an evidence-shredding demi-punishment for “Spygate” that spawned endless resentment from other franchises. These disclosures seemed ripe with promise for fretful pundit echolalia about What Football and America Even Mean Anymore.
I will confess here to bias. I enjoy the Patriots. As a franchise, they are a hater’s paradise – they make so many insufferable teams and fanbases so spastically unhappy – and I genuinely believe that Bill Belichick is trolling the NFL and the media at all times, both of which deserve it. I also take constant satisfaction in the fact that their “maintaining basic levels of fucking competency” appears to be a near impossibility everywhere else in an NFL that considers sucking its own dick over its exquisite professionalism to be Job #2 after soaking the rubes.
Anyhow, all the charges flung at the Patriots seemed a little like a hill of whatever, given an NFL memory longer than a mayfly’s. There were former players and coaches at the time of “Spygate” who admitted to stealing team signals in earlier days of the NFL. That the Patriots interfered with opposing teams’ headset communications actually seems funny, given that Bill Belichick probably got the idea from sainted 49ers head coach Bill Walsh’s repeatedly doing that to the New York Giants. The idea of sneaking into locker rooms to poach lists of opening plays seems almost quaint compared to a league in which the Raiders of Al Davis (and the also-sainted John Madden) used to bug the visitors’ locker room and sent agents to team hotels, and it becomes screwball funny when you realize that teams started planting fake playlists for the Patriots in hopes they’d be stolen.
Honestly, that last bit sounds so much more fun than most things about the NFL. If Roger Goodell had an ounce of sense, he would legalize unrestricted Spy vs. Spy pregame warfare and let teams steal everything. Who knows? A much lower-key version of this may already occur, but figuring that out would require the lucky confluence of news organizations wanting to devote expensive resources to pursuing the story, a commissioner’s office as interested in burning other teams as Goodell was in burning the Patriots and NFL inside sources willing to engage in shit-stirring at the risk of having other teams’ officials telling journalists to look instead at what the league was putting in the stew. We all should dream of the day that we discover the NFL, as an organization, exists as a matrix of point/counterpoint, low-level ratfucking, but there will probably never be low enough risk for informed people to admit to it.
The Patriots did steal, of course – ratfucking blown up to the same degree that Nixon and his plumbers took local- and college-level sabotage nationwide. However indifferent you might feel to nonviolent gamesmanship doesn’t alter the fact that they’re guilty as hell. Which is why we really could have used more righteous hand-wringing about this revelation. There is nothing funnier than watching moral scolds scattering like minnows whenever some pebble of ethical or narrative deviance plops into their small pond.
These are the people who wail about banned substances in baseball when a dude in the Hall of Fame dedicated half his autobiography’s title to the spitball. Or who ignore that their heroes were on amphetamines. Or who cite the health risks of illegal substances in football while all but ignoring that Mike Shanahan’s teams attacked the legs of opposing linemen with more ferocity than a half-starved wolf would if you made everyone wear sirloins as kneepads. Or who praised the 2013 Seattle Seahawks’ defense to the heavens despite their essentially planning to cheat comprehensively as a form of game theory: commit enough regular pass interference penalties that referees become reluctant to flag defenders on every down – fearing both the spotlight and the disruption of flow to the game – and eventually you get a more physically permissive game that plays to your strengths. These are the people who should have been shouting to the heavens about what everyday Americans would have to tell their children, and instead they went quiet for the NFL’s opening game.
Really, we deserved better. The people who spent most of the last 13 years anointing the New England Patriots as America’s Team should have had to reckon with the distinction now, if only to see how they’d fuck it up. For the rest of us, it’s not hard. The great thing about historicity is that most things are never so good or so bad as someone is desperately trying to make them seem, and the biggest cries of praise or horror are usually delivered by someone ignoring chunks of context and begging to be ignored in return.
The Patriots can be the best team in the NFL and a wake of buzzards without the two ideas being contradictory. We weigh similar pairings all the time. Just a glance Trumpward will reveal endless rhetoric about how America is simultaneously the greatest nation on earth and also a cesspool of socialistic handouts to “race-baiting” thugs, rapist illegals and women who always put out for other men, then stick you with the bill. Likewise, the NFL is simultaneously a delight of a game built atop civic plunder, labor exploitation and $11 drafts made in a country that only nationally discovered adding flavor to beer in the late 1990s. Hell, there’s probably no more fitting distinction than an (un)exceptional nation carved out of broken treaties and land grabs being represented by an America’s Team (un)exceptionally prone to theft.
This was the big comparison we deserved last night, the sort of long next-morning mirror gaze befitting the endless season of mythological self-examination we’re trapped in until November, 2016. Thankfully, it looks like the Patriots sabotaged the Steelers’ headsets last night. Or didn’t. At this point, either statement matters the most or not at all depending on existing opinions that wouldn’t have changed with or without this data, whatever it says.
All that matters is that this provides another opportunity for peals of the agony of victimization or the concern-troll whimpering of moral disappointment, both of which are hilarious. Just like the presidential election, the only question is whether we want it to gloriously go on forever or be ended immediately by the act of a merciful God. Considering that the best either arena can offer in the way of that last entity is Cruz/Huckabee or Roger Goodell, we’re going to be here for a while. Given that Tom Brady has a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker, the only finish to all of this that we probably deserve is the Patriots stealing the election. They’d probably fuck it up less.