American sports are popular largely for their ability to transcend politics, class, and race. I think of a scene in Major League, the 1989 film that imagines the Cleveland Indians defeating the New York Yankees for the American League East title.
As the Indians’ successfully complete their improbable task, the story cuts to a bar where fans cheer wildly, among them a T-shirt-clad, blue-collar patron who impulsively hugs a leather-jacketed, New Wave enthusiast sporting a Flock-of-Seagulls hairstyle. Immediately, the two men push each other away, realizing their “mistake,” only to embrace again because, jeez, our team actually won!
That’s the power of sports at their best: impartial and unifying, with a particular preference for team.
We could certainly use this team-focus in these profoundly partisan times. What if Democrats and Republicans in Hartford, for instance, played together on Team Connecticut to solve the budget crisis? What if Democrats and Republicans in Washington similarly joined Team America to do something … anything?
If anyone could teach politicians to play as a team, it would be the New England Patriots, winners of Super Bowl LIII.
What’s that, you say? You hate the Patriots? You’re tired of seeing the same team in half the Super Bowls since 2002? You think this year’s game was a big bore? Even if you’re not a Pats fan, you should appreciate New England’s approach to football because it’s a life lesson for citizens and politicians alike.
I understand the pushback. As sportswriter Jay Busbee explained, “America is flat-out sick of seeing the Pats in the Super Bowl. Yes, New England is great; Tom Brady has a perfect life, Rob Gronkowski is a party bro, [Coach] Bill Belichick is a cranky genius, blah blah blah. We know this. We’ve known it for the past five freaking years, where the Patriots have played for a Lombardi [Trophy] in four of them.”
But as vaunted football writer Peter King noted, “I think if America hung around the locker room, it would like this edition of the Patriots. Around the Patriots last week, the coaches and players spoke of a selflessness — even among the stars like Rob Gronkowski and [MVP Julian] Edelman and Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore — that exceeded prior championship teams in Foxboro.”
“One of the things Bill Belichick preaches,” tight end Dwayne Allen told King, “is he wants a smart, tough, disciplined, unselfish football team that performs well under pressure. And that’s what we did tonight.”
To that point, this lowest-scoring Super Bowl saw both the Los Angeles Rams and the Patriots execute nearly flawless defensive game plans for three quarters until New England’s creativity and self-confidence proved the difference. Specifically, Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels threw out his game plan and improvised new plays, drawn up on the spot.
“It was a pretty amazing thing,’’ said Allen. “Hats off to the Rams. They really knew us. They played us great. But football’s about in-game adjustments. Josh told us on the sideline, ‘We did not practice this at all coming into this game, and I realize that, but this is going off in my head, and it’s something I think we need to do’.”
What they did was score a go-ahead touchdown on one drive and a game-clinching field goal on the next — made possible by a collection of unselfish players devoted to Coach Belichick’s signature mantra: “Do your job!”
“It’s not easy to be a Patriot,” defensive back Gilmore told King. “It’s a grind every day. Even when we win games, it feels like we lose sometimes because it’s hard. We want to be perfect and sometimes we’re not. But it’s worth it. Everything is worth it.”
Patriot haters will always hate. Sustained excellence will breed such jealousy, especially in the NFL, a league built for parity. But the wise fan understands that a commitment to team and a willingness to work hard for that team is always a winning formula.
If only citizens and politicians took this lesson to heart, they’d realize that we’re all playing for the same team. We just need to put certain individual differences aside so, like the Patriots, we can work towards a common goal — in this case, a better state and country for all.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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