The Patriots' curse
Widely liked champions often quickly become villians
Posted: Tuesday February 5, 2008 2:55PM; Updated: Wednesday February 6, 2008 2:17PM
It feels like an ice age ago that the Patriots took the field at Super Bowl XXXVI as lovable, 14-point underdogs against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. Their 20-17 victory on Adam Vinatieri's kick as time expired was heartwarming stuff -- unless you were a Rams fan or a partisan of an AFC rival sworn to lasting enmity for the Patriots. But for a fence-sitter, Tom Brady was the grist of beloved lore: a guy who rose from high school backup and sixth-round obscurity to steely champion. His clutch, gritty team-first crew was a refreshing antidote to a flood of me-first showboats.
As many champions do, the Patriots eventually crossed a dark line in our collective psyche and became easy to root against, mainly because they won too much and were overshadowed by the coldblooded arrogance that oozes from coach Bill Belichick. Brady's dismissive chortling at Plaxico Burress' fever dream prediction of a 23-17 Giants victory felt like smarm, though Randy Moss of all people was classy in the aftermath, saying "hat's off." Belichick squeezed out a terse, "They made more plays than we did" with his mouth full of rotten lemons.
To be sure, the Pats and their fans had every right to be superconfident against the Giants, whose own pregame crowing is now seen as charming Joe Namath-style bravado. But more than a few folks enjoyed New England's last-minute, perfection-denying tumble. The Spygate mess didn't do much for the Pats' public image and it will only get worse if our elected leaders put off addressing the subprime, health care and immigration messes in favor of getting to the bottom of Big Bill's alleged taste for illicit video. But given the excellence of their organization, the Pats won't be taking out a lease in Tomato Can City any time soon. They're going to be villains for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Schumer's proclamation at Tuesday's victory parade that the Giants are now America's Team is daft. Those who rooted for them simply because they were such an odds-defying story will begin to dislike them soon enough, partly because they are from New York and partly because of Manning overload. Peyton is already a successful, ubiquitous presence courting a backlash. Eli's ascension guarantees resentment as his mug begins to appear everywhere in conjunction with assorted merchandise. Those who have it all naturally inspire envy. Thus the sight of Brady being repeatedly planted on his posterior in Arizona was relished by many. It was comforting proof that there is an inherent parity to the cosmos.
Our culture loves a success story as long as the success is limited. Once anyone or anything is on top, the desire for a tear-down begins and intensifies with time. The degree of our hostility is directly proportional to the amount of arrogance that accompanies success.
Red Auerbach had his victory cigar during the glory days of the Celtics 1950s-60s dynasty. The '72 Dolphins weren't hated in their day, but they've made up for it with their champagne-popping since. The Yankees have won so often in their history that their legion of detractors will always dance gleefully at their defeat. The low-key 1996 team caught some people off guard, but that got fixed in a hurry thanks to four titles in five years and George Steinbrenner's bombast.
The Red Sox were once palatable underdogs, but they're becoming Yankees North -- big-moneyed and perpetually successful. Tim Duncan and the Spurs have remained largely under the dislike radar, although Tony Parker's dalliance with Eva Longoria is pure Brady-envy territory. Brett Favre's lionization before this season's NFC Championship Game only enhanced a certain sadistic pleasure at Green Bay's defeat.
A slogan like the Red Wings' Hockey Town makes a team easy to root against. The Cowboys are loathed by many for claiming to be America's Team, but they were once nationally-liked because they were underdogs and losers in big games. After a down period, the recent success of Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens is restoking the easy hate oven.
Some champions avoid intense widespread dislike. Wayne Gretzky's Oilers by dint of The Great One's class and excellence. Michael Jordan's Bulls, thanks fo MJ's otherworldly skills and status as a cultural icon although Dennis Rodman worked overtime to alienate people. John Elway's Broncos because he went out on top after taking his lumps in three Super Bowl losses. The likeable Magic Johnson and his Lakers, Terry Bradshaw's Steelers and the Joe Montana/Steve Young 49ers were seen mostly as tests of mettle -- but San Francisco has fallen off and that helps cool the sense that a return to glory will be unwelcome. Same with the Montreal Canadiens -- parts of Canada excepted -- who haven't won the Stanley Cup with regularity in 30 years.
The infamous Raiders of the '70s and '80s were disliked because they were renegades, the '80s Celtics because Larry Bird was cocky, the Bad Boy Pistons because they were a nightly thumb in the eye. Even the relatively benign three-Cup Devils were decried for ruining the NHL with their stultifying defense. There are as many reasons to root against a champion as we can conjure up. The Patriots are in that place now. The Giants will be there soon enough.
To echo Al Davis, "Just win, baby -- but not too much."