Every once in a while, a sporting event becomes culturally bigger than the thing itself, and who you root for becomes proxy for who you are and how you see the world. If you were in Ali’s corner when he squared off against Philly’s own Joe Frazier at the Garden in 1971, chances are you were also taking a stand against American imperialism in the jungles of Vietnam.
And, around the same time, if you saw in Broadway Joe Namath not just the tightest spirals yet known to man, but a long-haired, fur-coat wearing hedonist who was the only athlete on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, you were soon to carry a metaphorical countercultural card.
More recently, and closer to home, if you embraced the first corn-rowed, tattooed, dominant professional athlete—all 165 pounds of Allen Iverson—you were embracing the notion, despite the howls of disapproval from the old guard, that a new generation, raised on hip-hop, could embody timeless, warrior-like values.
Well, Sunday’s Super Bowl might not be seen nationally as just such a cultural referendum, but it should be. For there is no team more aligned with Donald Trump than the New England Patriots, both personally, and in terms of values represented; and there is no team in professional sports as socially conscious as our Eagles. Make no mistake: Trump-era narcissism versus progressive communitarianism will be on the scoreboard come Sunday night.
First, let’s take the Patriots. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni pegged the Pats in a recent column: “The Patriots perfectly embody our income-inequality era and the tax reform that President Trump recently signed,” he wrote. “Their good fortune begets more good fortune. They shamelessly hoard glory. And there’s frequently a whiff of cheating in their success.”
In that, Bruni presumably refers to the time a Patriots employee was caught surreptitiously videotaping the play calling hand signals of opposing coaches, or when golden boy quarterback Tom Brady—or a low-level organizational fall guy—deflated footballs in search of a competitive edge. Saturday Night Live’s parody of Brady’s dissembling, viewed today, seems eerily reminiscent of a certain orange-haired president’s telling of lies that defy the laws of chutzpah:
Is it any surprise, then, that the Patriots are Trump’s team, and that Brady, Coach Bill Belichick, and team owner Robert Kraft all describe themselves as his friend? Last season, a “Make America Great Again” cap sat on prominent display in Brady’s locker, and Belichick—whose public persona is as humorless as the president’s—wrote “your leadership is amazing” in a note to Trump.
Bruni is right to see in the Patriots a reflection of Trump’s morally suspect, win at all costs ethos, but the normally dead-on columnist is wrong to similarly decry the Eagles, singling out our “famously obnoxious” fans who threw beer cans at the Vikings team bus after the game. “Sore winning: I wonder which of our amazing leaders taught them that,” Bruni writes.
First, yes, there are some knuckleheads in the stands of Eagles games, as at many NFL games. But games at the Linc are decidedly more civil (and, perhaps not unrelated, upscale) than during the old days at Veterans Stadium, where fistfights broke out in the stands as often as the wave and a makeshift courtroom and holding cell had to be set up in the bowels of the stadium. Indeed, footage has arisen of Eagles fans actually hugging Vikings fans at game’s end, something I never thought I’d see:
It’s too easy for Bruni to dismiss the Eagles as not so dissimilar in values from the Patriots based on the idiotic acts of a handful of drunken fans when there is a whole body of evidence that the Eagles—the actual team—stand for the very same progressive values the columnist so often champions in his writing.
There’s All-Pro safety Malcolm Jenkins, a Citizen columnist, leading the charge on criminal justice reform, going on police ride-alongs, open-mindedly seeking common ground. There’s the fact that the Eagles nominated Jenkins as this year’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, given to a player who has had a positive impact on his community—almost as if in defiance of Trump. (Unfortunately, he didn’t make the final cut.)
There’s defensive end Chris Long, donating an entire year’s salary to educational nonprofits. And there’s the team’s groundbreaking commitment to the planet, often loading up its chartered airplane with its own trash if the recycling efforts in opposing stadia don’t measure up.
And that’s just for starters. This week, getting psyched for the big game, we’ll profile two players a day whose commitment to social causes rivals their hustle and determination on the field. Win or lose Sunday, the message we get from these Eagles—in stark contrast to that given off by Trump’s Patriots—is communitarian in nature. Whether in the “next man up” ethos on the field that has seen replacement players like Nick Foles step in for fallen teammates without missing a beat, or in the way so many players serve the greater community—particularly the least of these—our Eagles say to us in countless ways: We’re all in this together. At a time when our public life has devolved into mean spiritedness and division, the Eagles remind us of our better angels.
Let Belichick scowl, Trump-like. We’ve got Jeff Lurie’s joyous white man overbite.Header photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0