I’ll never forget where I was when the Patriots began an improbable comeback victory over a Saints team they had no business beating on Sunday: outside on the porch, pacing in frustration. I was looking through the screen door occasionally, an image that my friends likened to a threatening intruder peeking in the house to case the joint. But the truth is I had given up. Having already witnessed two failed chances to come back from behind and win the game in the final 3:30, my optimism was destroyed. We’re told that Tom Brady is one of the best in these situations – 38 fourth quarter comebacks from a tie or a deficit in his career – but we haven’t seen that guy in a long time. Too many lost Super Bowls and playoff games have twisted my perception of the player and the team. Unlike the Super Bowl-winning era, they no longer win these tight games. “End of era,” a friend had just tweeted at me as the game seemingly slipped away. “They’re just not that good anymore,” I responded.
The truth is, they’re not, and this is something that many of the fans who left early, now being mocked for their faithlessness, recognize. I wasn’t alone in this line of thinking, although it could have been worse. A friend of mine on Facebook left Gillette Stadium early in order to make it to Fenway Park in time for the Red Sox playoff game against the Tigers. He also left that soul-sucking mess of a game early. I really can’t blame him. I was tempted to turn that one off just before the thrilling grand slam from David Ortiz that tied it up. And I would have, but the remote control was all the way across the room and there was nothing better on. Does that sort of thing make me a bad fan? It might, if such a thing actually existed.
But there’s no such thing as authenticity in sports fandom. Either you care about the outcome of a game or you don’t. That’s it, the one requirement for being a fan. People who doggedly stay to the final seconds of every contest or refuse to change the channel aren’t “real fans,” they’re people with nothing better to do and no particular place else to be.
Jabbering between fan bases is a predictable part of any good rivalry, but one of the more distasteful and myopic strains it typically takes on is in arguments over whose fans are more hardcore or more exemplary in their single-minded devotion to the team. We’re meant to look down upon cities with “fairweather” fans, whose attention waxes and wains with the relative fortunes of the hometown team’s season. But how does that make any sort of logical sense? In many other areas of life this is seen as a character flaw. Blind support of your political party when they’ve made a misstep is rightly seen as the territory of the zealot. One might be a fan of a particular director or actor, but no one expects you to sit through every single film they make all the way through the credits – some of them are stinkers. Are you not a real fan of a band because you skip a tour date in your town on the current album cycle because you don’t particularly appreciate the newer songs? What if you do go and they put on a mediocre concert? Can you duck out early and still proudly wear your concert T-shirt? That’s a trick question, no one should wear a concert T-shirt, or a team jersey for that matter, past 19.
Nonetheless, why doesn’t the same apply to sports? An underwhelming football “concert” isn’t retroactively amazing just because they played your favorite song at the end – the one where they win. The Patriots, let’s not forget, had two previous chances to win the game before that final drive. Watching Brady and the team try to do so and come up short was emotionally draining, and quite frankly, no fun. It’s an experience Patriots fans might not be as used to as a lot of other cities (and maybe that’s why I sound like such an entitled whiner), but it’s become increasingly common. Isn’t the point of all of this to enjoy the process? Watching a once-great quarterback come up short time and time again in recent years has drained all of the joy out of it for me on the rare occasion when he does. It’s like when your favorite band starts putting out crappy records after a great run of hits. There always comes a point where all but the most insane devotees jump ship and start pretending that they aren’t making music anymore. And this is as it should be. To do otherwise tarnishes the cherished memories you have of the good old days.
You’ll probably say that losing faith like this is exactly what makes me a bad fan in the first place, but it seems to me the opposite is the more disingenuous approach. Seconds before that final drive the vast majority of the fans were sharing my frustration, I’d wager, likely thinking we had seen the last of Brady’s magic and that he can’t hit the high notes anymore. Afterward, they retro-fitted their outlook on the quality of the game and the team to match up with the outcome ex-post-facto. This sort of revisionism – either the Patriots are on the slide and the team’s run is over, or it’s back in the hunt for a Super Bowl based on one catch – is frustrating and illogical. Perhaps that’s the essence of sports, you might counter. Another argument goes that it’s not whether or not you win the game, but how well you play. If we’re to take that truism at face value, a poorly-played game where you win should be as distasteful to a real fan as one in which you lose.
That’s why, the next time the Patriots are about to lose a game like that, I’m walking out of the room and turning my back on the team until they prove that they’re not going to choke it all away again. If you love something, let it go. If anything, that’s what being a fan means to me, loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it inevitably fall apart – and everything inevitably falls apart. Any real fan knows that.
[Photo credit: Stephan Savoia/AP]