The Brady Crunch: Homers, Haters, and the Curious Spectre of Success in Sports

Several days ago, I watched the UF-Miami game with my good friend Brian, a UGA grad who loathes the Florida Gators as much as anyone in the world.  During one of ESPN’s typically sentimental midgame vignettes — a clip describing Heisman winner Tim Tebow‘s volunteer medical travels — Brian “Gator Hater” Bordainick exclaimed, “You know, he’s actually a great guy; but I still f-ing hate him.”

Later that same night, whilst answering the call of nature, so to speak, I came across a Sports Illustrated article in which Tebow explained his reasoning for declining inclusion into Playboy’s All-America Team; (he doesn’t want kids who view him as a role model to necessarily associate him with such risque content).  Upon hearing of this article, Brian simply replied, “Geez.”

I’d largely forgotten about this relatively run-of-the-mill sports exchange… until a few other happenings all converged in my cranium.  First, The Sack Heard ‘Round the World happened, and suddenly fans the world over were cheering the prospect of a Brady-less NFL; then, Roger Federer, who’d been cast off as a supposedly over-the-hill tennis has-been, stormed through the men’s field in New York to win his 5th — yes, 5th! — consecutive United States Tennis Open.

What in the world, you might ask, do all these fragmented musings have to do with one another?  Well, for a while, I wasn’t sure myself… but, after some reflection, I got it: individual sports and team sports occupy thoroughly different parts of the American conscience.  They’re as different as black and white, as apples and oranges. 

What a revelation: People don’t hateTim Tebow and love Tiger Woods purely based upon their individual personalities.  Things are much more… complex.

Consider…

Team sports occupy a unique section of our larger culture.  Each of the three major sports leagues (that’s right — NHL be damned!) contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 teams, each of which proudly (or not-so-proudly) represents not just the athletes who constitute it, but also its communities’ and city’s ethos at large.

The NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, for example, are much more than an arbitrary group of 12 dribblers, passers, and shooters sent out to play a game in the name of L.A.  The word “Lakers” connotes a distinct culture, a very definite swagger — and yes, perhaps even a certain zeitgeist.  The Lakers are “Showtime,” the veritable Hollywood Hotties of the Hardwood.  Thus, when people such as myself profess extreme dislike for Kobe Bryant and company, it’s very rare that we’re actually “discrediting” the athletics abilities and/or accomplishments of said players.  No one can sanely assert that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were a “bad” or “unworthy” basketball team; it is, however, quite acceptable to have been enamored when Shaq was traded to the Heat, or when Kobe’s hotel scandal erupted.

Think, too, of the New York Yankees.  I hate them; lots of people I know hate them; everyone who doesn’t brown-nose or bandwagon them absolutely detests them.  Again, “hating” the New York Yankees does not simply entail disliking or “doubting” the abilities of a Derek Jeter, an A-Rod, or a Jorge Posada.  After all, A-Rod, despite being one of the most hated athletes in sports, is a stud; he recently became only the 2nd player in MLB history to notch 12 consecutive seasons of 30-100.  No… hating the Yankees means hating success; it means hating money; it means hating the rich jock from high school who had good looks, athletic ability, brains, andall the parental funding he wanted.  Similarly, loving the Yankees means much more than being fond of their constituent players; loving the Yankees means preferring blue-collar Bronx grime to trendy Met elitism, cherishing the singular grit of a city, and honoring the Golden Era of The Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, and Say-Hey. 

Enter Tom Brady — a guy who, at his core, embodies the American sports dream: Big-10 QB, celebrity smile, dragon-slayingfirst Super Bowl title followed by two more, supermodel girlfriend, stellar offensive line, veteran defense, life of luxury.  Heck, if you asked Joe SportsFan to envision a cariacatureof “the perfect athlete,” he’d likely conjure up something almost identical to Tom Brady.

Strangely enough, this gift is also Brady’s curse.  I’ve been paining myself for days wondering why in the world people would actually cheer when his season-ending injury happened.  It’s finally dawned on me: The Brady-haters hate Brady for the exact same reasons that the Brady-lovers adore him.

Think about it: There must be some pressing reason for such animosity.  After all, why would any self-proclaimed “sports fan” actually cheer when the league’s best player is knocked out for the season?  Is it a good thing to lose one of the most talented players to ever play the game?  Is it a good thing if, for example, the Bills win the Super Bowl, and get to run around calling themselves “the best,” while knowing they didn’t have to face the best?  A Brady-less NFL season is much like the upcoming Tiger-less majors will likely be: diet, at best.

Considering the reasoning above, there must be reasons why people hate Brady.  Consider the very traits that make him enviable: his skills, his looks, his lady.  These are the very same reasons that fans loathe an individual who embodies their very dream.  THEY HATE HIM BECAUSE HE’S NOT ON THEIR TEAM!!!

The Patriots (as led by Tom Brady) symbolize swagger and success, and fans of losing teams simply can’t support this.  Strangely enough, though, the Pats embody the same type of attitude as the successful 49ers teams of the 80s and 90s… yet no one disparages those teams; perhaps it’s because enough time has passed for those Niners no longer to pose a threat to fans’ current teams?

To go back to my introductory example, people hate Tim Tebow, despite the fact that he embodies numerous praiseworthy traits: namely, he’s morally upright in his life and unstoppable on the field.  Apparently, fans deem this as too much; a guy can’t be good and “good people.”  So, we boo.

So, what we’ve gathered is that fans hate great players from great teams other than those teams for which they root.  A-Rod may become the greatest baseball player, yet people hate him; Tom Brady may be among the top 3 or 4 QBs ever to play in the NFL, yet people cheer when he’s incapacitated; Shaqis the most dominant center of our lifetime, yet few people applauded during the Lakers’ 3peat.

How, then, do we explain the popularity of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Lance Armstrong?

To me, cheering for the Patriots and Tom Brady, or rooting for the Red Sox to repeat in the World Series, is no different than rooting for Tiger Woods to win another Masters, or for Roger Federerto shatter the all-time singles grand slam record.  For most people, though, these two are quite different.

Why?  Because people do not tend to have loyalties to individual-sport athletes.  Unless you grew up in the same town as Duffy Waldorf, or have a peculiar affinity for Sebastian “She Had a” Grosjean, then you likely don’t care if Tiger/Phil and Roger/Rafa continue to pile up astronomical records.  THEY’RE NOT BEATING YOUR GUYS!!!

In general, everyone loves Tiger Woods, andpeople only watch or care about golf when he’s winning; similarly, people druel over Federer/Nadal grand slam finals (like this year’s 5-set Wimbledon masterpiece), but few care to lose sleep over a Hewitt/Gaudio snoozer.

Intriguing–when Tiger disappears for months due to injury, faces droop and everyone essentially writes off golf for a year; when Tom Brady tears his ACL and MCL, cheers erupt and everyone celebrates a year in which “everyone will have a shot now” (to win the Fake Super Bowl).

Here’s a pointer for aspiring athletes who want to be successful andpraised by homers and general fans alike: Play an individual sport, like Tiger and Roger, or at least compile monster stats for a team that’s not in a top-tier media market or the top-tier in league salary.  We love D. Wade.  We love CP3.  We hate Derek Jeter.  We hate Curt Schilling (as a Red Sock, that is; everyone loved him as a D-back.)

If you don’t listen to the evidence, then you’ll end up sad, boo-worthy, and on the brink of disaster.

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One Response to The Brady Crunch: Homers, Haters, and the Curious Spectre of Success in Sports

  1. bwright08 says:

    Interesting piece. I can say I pretty much totally agree with your observations. But I do think another factor in Brady’s case is that, especially in this past season, he really embraced his own myth. In his first two super bowl victories, and to an extent his third, he definitely had that “aw shucks, I’m just lucky to be here” attitude that won over a lot of people, myself included. But last season he seemed to drop that image in favor of the arrogant high school starting quarterback mentality that just steamrolled the competition without any regard for sportsmanship. I think one of the reasons why you didn’t hear as much negative press for dynasties of the past is because those teams were excellent without being pretentious. They knew they were the best in the game but Tom Brady and the Patriots acted as if they were above the game, which will rub anyone not a Patriots fan the wrong way. Last year he and the Patriots acted like they were owed a perfect season, and that turned the rest of the sportsnation against them.

    That would be my only addendum, otherwise right on.

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