Football has long been a useful analogy for those in the political ring. Hesitant legislators punt unpopular decisions down the field. Leaders quarterback their teams to huddle up and fight for the outcomes they want. And let’s not forget how a fumbled football helped scupper the prime ministerial ambitions of the Maritimes’ most prominent politician.
“[Politics] is probably most like football,” former president Barack Obama once told Jerry Seinfeld. “A lot of players. A lot of specialization. A lot of hitting. A lot of attrition. But then every once in awhile, you’ll see an opening, you hit the line, you get one yard, you try a play, you get sacked, now it’s like, third and 15… you have to punt a lot. But every once in awhile, you see a hole, and then there’s open field.”
But what happens when football becomes an actual stand-in for politics?
Super Bowl LI—America’s 51st orgy of naked patriotism and loosely shrouded capitalism compressed into a single smash-mouth day of simplistic symbols—is, barring presidential executive order, set to take place on Sunday. It will feature the Atlanta Falcons, whose high-flying offence has led them to just their second championship appearance in their five-decade history as they play the Oscar-catnip role of underdog. It will also feature the New England Patriots, who have appeared in seven Super Bowls since 2002: a team widely regarded by their supporters as earth-walking demigods, and by non-Patriots fans as a gangrenous infection on the game.
Whether or not that sneering is justified, or if it’s merely sour grapes over the objective truth of the franchise’s dynastic run, will be debated by talking jock heads to infinity, or until they warp into whatever molten hateful thing Skip Bayless is. But it’s of no matter here, because the bigger cloud that follows the Patriots into the Super Bowl is how the team’s most prominent members have aligned themselves so clearly with controversial U.S. President Donald Trump.
Svengali coach Bill Belichick, mordant and phlegmatic in his hoodie uniform, was revealed to have hugged and kissed the current president (by a source no less primary yet uncertain than Trump himself); Trump also revealed, on the campaign trail, that Belichick had sent him a letter slamming the “slanted media” and praising his “amazing” leadership.
The robotically great quarterback Tom Brady, gifted with the ability to suck the air from the room as quickly as he can from a football, placed a “Make America Great Again” hat prominently in his locker during a media scrum and said it “would be great” if Trump were president. He didn’t do himself any favours with his churlish comments on Super Bowl press day, in response to a question about protests to Trump’s immigration ban: “What’s going on in the world? I haven’t paid much attention. I’m just a positive person.”
The pair’s quasi-queasy support, plus owner Robert Kraft’s friendship with the president, all constitutes the most open rooting from inside the sports world for a divisive president whose actions have already inspired worldwide protests, sanctions from federal judges, a weakly attended inauguration, diplomatic crises, and what some polls suggest to be the lowest popularity numbers of the modern presidency. It’s spurred publications like New York Magazine, Slate and The Root to suggest cheering for the Falcons and against the Patriots, as they’re “Trump’s team.” The Super Bowl’s players, from the voluble Martellus Bennett to the Muslim Mohamed Sanu, spent press day dealing less with Xs and Os and more with issues of migrant crossings and partisan rows. And so it was that politics abruptly became a stand-in, rather than mere metaphor, for politics.
But no matter how easy it would be to do so, the Super Bowl cannot be dominated by the political narrative.
Sure, it would be easy—given how much this partisan narrative has dominated the Super Bowl conversation, and how much fuel Trump, the media, Belichick and Brady have added to the fire—to believe that rooting against the Patriots is a political act, that it qualifies as an act of resistance for those who oppose Trump.
But that allows sports, useful in some ways but futile in more, to sub in for political discourse. And when it comes to politics, sports comes up deeply wanting. Yes, many actions are political—from the belief systems you express clearly in your votes to the personal, daily choices you make that form those beliefs. But not everything that is political is necessarily useful. Sports fans need not expect their athletes to think the way they do—because even if they did, how would that really alter the illogic of which team’s laundry you would rather pay $150 to wear?
After all, the practice of sports fandom is an extremist worst-case microcosm of our current political discourse. Being a fan of a sport, with its clean lines and the simple mathematical binaries of winning or losing, means never having to step outside your echo-chamber, interrogating your beliefs, or compromising your values. You are rewarded for being fervent about your tribe. There is no room for centrism, for seeing the other side, for questions of why you are a fan of a team—there’s only room for the inarguable appeals to emotion that fuel this voracious, frothing, irrational fandom. For the sake of us all, the way we talk about sports needs to remain separate from how we talk about politics.
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The Super Bowl also offers us a reminder that it’s okay for things to not be political, that it doesn’t represent a personal failure to not always be up for a fight. To ignore the political here isn’t to eliminate the issue, or to say it doesn’t matter. It’s to clear the way so that the political choices that do matter, that do boil furiously and demand our attention, get the attention it deserves. Making the Super Bowl partisan only makes it harder to see the forest from the trees, to note the problems that really matter. For those who oppose him, Trump’s policies matter far more than his football friendships.
Certainly, that’s something of a false dichotomy—caring about banalities doesn’t automatically preclude you from caring about policy. But when everything is political, it makes it harder to target the things that really matter—and people do, ultimately, have a limited psychic bandwidth for political issues. There is an acceptable solace to find in the things that don’t need to be political—and hey, maybe the place to start is the title game of a multibillion-dollar sports league that asks its fans to forget that its players are killing each other in front of you for entertainment.
So go ahead: crack that branded beer, eat too much chili, buy a GoDaddy website, and don’t think too much about the political implications of the Super Bowl. Revel in your preferred secular rituals at the foot of first-world capitalism’s cathedral without much concern for the real world. For a night, let the cognitive dissonance that has long lubricated the NFL’s blood-spattered money press hum louder than your brain working out of what Trump means for the Super Bowl.
After all, the Patriots are villainous enough on their own.