Do Your Job

It is a mistake to count on men like Belichick and Brady to understand the basic tenets of our shared world together. They know how to throw touchdowns and win football games, but not how to build or maintain a world in which it is possible to make millions doing so. For that, they rely on the rest of us, especially those long since priced out of their stadiums.

The game’s sheer improbability made the whole thing impossible to take seriously until it was over.

Martellus Bennett

The night before the election I lay awake with a fever on an air mattress in my friend’s attic. We had spent the day canvassing middle class black neighborhoods for Hillary. It took me several tries get the correct mix of sheepishness and concern behind my opening pitch: “You’re voting tomorrow right?” No cheerleading, no flag waving, just a straightforward question. I knew enough to know that Hillary’s trajectory from Goldwater Girl to Wellesley Commencement Speaker to ludicrously persecuted First Lady (first of Arkansas, then the country) to centrist senator to chief bureaucrat at Foggy Bottom had made it impossible for her to relate. She was a professional’s professional, someone whose achievements seem to signify anything but public service. She’s a lot like Bill Belichick in that respect, except instead of Tom Brady she has Bill Clinton. I don’t believe for a second, then or now, that she would have been a worse President for anyone, anywhere than Donald Trump, a man who was worth five times as much on the day he was born as Bill and Hillary have managed to accumulate in a lifetime of Third Way opportunism. Bill has kissed autocratic, aristocratic ass for chump change from Morocco to Taiwan. Trump is an autocratic aristocrat. Sometimes a shitty choice is still an easy one.

I had been feeling sick since Comey’s letter, at one point screaming “The Times rolled over for the secret police!” so loud I made my therapist cry. But with the end in sight I was drifting in and out of consciousness as my Twitter stream merged with half-watched video clips and the first glimmers of misplaced Facebook triumphalism. Encircled by celebrities, Clinton put the finishing touches on her prevent defense. She’d been rhetorically dropping nine, ten men into coverage for weeks, no longer even bothering to attack Trump on his lies but relying instead on the media to call foul after foul on his campaign, but without much in the way of explanation or enforcement.

Meanwhile the candidate himself appeared as a man alone, almost entirely deprived of support, except—I perceived dimly through a haze of NyQuil—for the Hall of Fame coach and quarterback of my favorite football team. At a rally Trump read out a letter of support from Belichick and said Brady had called to say he had voted for him. The next day Massachusetts, where the New England Patriots play, became the only state in the nation to deny Trump so much as a county. Having voted absentee, already, in Maine, I awoke that afternoon and the nightmare began.

It had been two years since the Patriots last won the Super Bowl and almost as long since Trump began his campaign. I tried, in my darker moments, to imagine what the world was like back then, but it was difficult. I was helped when social media recently coughed back up my column about Deflategate, the overblown scandal about Brady’s penchant for throwing deflated footballs. The charges weren’t so much untrue as over-punished and deceitfully presented. The league lied consistently and clumsily about the data and hit Brady and the Patriots with sentences far in excess of precedent. This in turn allowed the entire region to lean in to its already well entrenched persecution complex. (Amy Poehler distilled this attitude when, hosting the Golden Globes, she donned a Boston accent and looked at Ben Affleck—who is from Cambridge—and said “Ben, you look good, good for you.” And then, perfectly, “You’re not better than me.”) Throughout Deflategate, Trump supported Brady consistently and publicly with the same breezy, exclamatory style he used to comment on the relationship between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. (“Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again—just watch. He can do much better!”) Reading the column over, I kept having to remind myself that I wrote it, so hard was it to recognize the tone of breathless concern over something so trivial. You will recognize happiness, Bataille once wrote, when you see it destroyed.

After the election, Belichick dissembled on the question of his Trump letter: I write letters to lots of people, some of my best friends are Democrats, et cetera. Brady has refused to speak on the topic of Trump, beyond saying that being friends with someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they do. Disgusted by this display, I did not watch the Patriots for the first time in almost two decades. Their first game post-election, they lost to the Seahawks and a friend texted, “Is it wrong to be happy?” We wanted desperately for Belichick and Brady to know how much they had hurt us and I still want that because I still hurt. Their cowardice will never be forgotten, nor should it. “How can I forgive them?” I whined, via text, to my friend from home who works for a Democratic congressman from California. “Church and State homey,” he texted back, “don’t sweat it.” Still, I was happy to learn that Patriots owner Bob Kraft had been calling around, begging forgiveness from various local notables. Maybe he’d learned something since his arrogance had cost him his South Boston stadium.

I went back to watching only when it became clear that it was costing me too much in the way of equilibrium not to. Though I can defend football on numerous more metaphysical fronts, the simple fact is that the complexity of the sport combines with a scarcity of games to produce a perfect storm of instrumental procrastination. At the end of a long day one can dive into an endless internet whirlpool of football statistics and analysis and enter into a kind of sensory deprivation chamber for the mind. The earnest dedication to this form of analysis on the part of so many is comforting when the news is so bad and so relentless. I needed someplace to hide. So I went back.

It has taken me longer to write about it again. I had told myself in the past that writing about football, and particularly its economics, was a fine way of drawing attention to the various crimes being perpetrated by the ruling class in this country; that if we could understand football owners as the menaces to society they so clearly are, we could understand the others that way as well. This no longer seems like a point in need of delivering. It is now obvious to everyone, everywhere.

If I remain disappointed in Brady and Belichick, it is for the same reason that I remain disappointed in white American men everywhere. A union man and a class traitor, respectively (Belichick is the only coach not in the union), Brady and Bill serve at the behest of the local potentate, no more independent of mind or intelligence than one of Louis XIV’s personal tailors. Belichick is the grandson of Marija Barković and Ivan Biličić, immigrants from Croatia in 1897—a region not without lone wolves at the time, as Franz Ferdinand would come to learn. But this history will not be sufficient for him to speak up for those fleeing terrible political circumstances in the Middle East. Brady is married to a Green Card holder and one of Brazil’s leading industries, whose overwhelming success has allowed him to take less money than he might have, leading to his own team’s success, but this will no more lead to his defending her rights than Trump’s marriage to Melania will lead him to stop attacking them. It is a mistake to count on men like Belichick and Brady to understand the basic tenets of our shared world together. They know how to throw touchdowns and win football games, but not how to build or maintain a world in which it is possible to make millions doing so. For that, they rely on the rest of us, especially those long since priced out of their stadiums.

And it is for this reason, perhaps, that I feel less conflicted than I did about enjoying the Patriots’ continued success. One of the team’s mantras lately has been “do your job,” an imperative in a game that relies on each player executing his assignment for the larger play to work. But it can be clarifying in political work as well, when answering questions like why am I knocking on doors to help a neoliberal? Or why is this protest all grad students? Neither of these things is a job the way that playing for the Patriots is, and certainly not in the way the rightwing media would have it (I am still waiting on my Soros check for my work in Occupy), but it is in the sense that if we do it well enough and long enough and hard enough, victory will be achieved. Not because electing neoliberals is a victory, but because direct action gets the goods, and today that may mean door knocking, while tomorrow it might mean getting arrested. Would it be nice if the people I like watching on television agreed with me? It would. Is that the reason I watch them on television? It isn’t. It is a strange reality that when we identify with a famous person we suddenly want them to be and do far more than the things that made us like them in the first place. We take their initial achievements for granted. It should probably be enough for one person to have written our favorite novel, but confronted with said person, we suddenly want everything else about them too, as though something entirely straight might be built from the crooked timber of celebrity. Lots of people voted for Trump; only one of them is a five-time Super Bowl Champion for my New England Patriots. I can’t forgive him his politics, but I don’t have to make more of them than what they are, either. Or maybe I just can’t afford to. I don’t have the resources, not when Betsy DeVos is secretary of education.

This year’s Super Bowl will likely count as among the greatest, because of the unprecedentedly large deficit New England overcame. But for three quarters the game was about as compelling as an ice cream truck in a snowstorm. You could tell something was wrong from the beginning. Watch New England long enough and you’ll begin to see when they’ve read a little too much of their own press. They fall in love with the pass and seem surprised when each and every drop back doesn’t end in a completion. One of the best pieces of reporting that came out this cycle was about how Belichick knows he needs to make life difficult for Brady, to keep him sharp and opponents guessing. One time, when Brady and his then-favorite receiver and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch were dominating practice too totally, Belichick insisted that Brady throw to someone else. Later, he traded Branch to Seattle. He traded Randy Moss after Brady went to him too often in the third game of the 2010 season, throwing two picks; and he ran Wes Welker out of town after Welker set the league record for consecutive seasons with more than 110 catches. In this, Belichick is obeying what Kerry Byrne once called the “Shiny Hood Ornament” theory of wide receivers. Namely that you only add a star receiver when everything else about the car is in good working order. Otherwise your opponent will know too much of your game plan. Since the Patriots offense relies on the quarterback throwing to the open guy, any inclination in advance toward one or the other side of the field disrupts the whole operation.

This wasn’t so much the problem on Sunday as was the young Atlanta defense, who simply made play after play after play until they eventually had nothing left. It did however seem like the Patriots were able to stop Atlanta’s star receiver-led offense when it counted, even though Julio Jones still made several of the more magnificent catches you will ever see. Among them was a toe-tapper that looked like it might put the game away after the Patriots had pulled within eight, until a sack and a holding call pushed the Falcons back out of field goal range. Julian Edelman’s miracle grab on the ensuing series was the moment you knew the Patriots would win—but it was just that, a miracle, while Jones was divine the whole time. 

If the game itself felt somehow less satisfying then it ought to have, it is simply because its sheer improbability made the whole thing impossible to take seriously until it was over. After New England kicked a field goal and found themselves down sixteen in the fourth, they still needed two touchdowns and two two-point conversions to tie, a possibility that even the biggest Patriots fan thought to be well past ludicrous. I was still preparing myself for them to lose when they won, as if my own emotional momentum was a boat that wouldn’t turn around fast enough. The next day I found an Instagram of Biddy Early’s, the bar where I’d watched, at the moment the game ended. I think I can hear myself screaming but I’m still not certain I was there. I do remember LeGarrete Blount streaking across the field to tackle James White, his fellow running back who scored the winning touchdown in overtime, in sheer glee. It was a beautiful moment between comrades. Blount could have been sad that it wasn’t his carry that won it—instead he just flew after his boy.

White scored because the Falcons linebackers couldn’t get off their blocks to tackle him short of the line the way Dont’a Hightower had done two Super Bowls ago, when he tossed Russell Okung, Seattle’s all-pro lineman, aside to make a shoestring tackle on Marshawn Lynch, setting up Malcolm Butler’s now legendary, game-clinching pick. Hightower began this comeback in earnest, too, when he strip-sacked Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter. Martellus Bennett—the tight end they call the Black Unicorn—set White up by drawing a pass interference penalty.

Bennett said before the game he won’t be visiting Trump’s White House. This team, it bears repeating, is so much more than Tom Brady. Some said the Patriots’ record-setting comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 felt like the election all over again. If this is the case for you, then I am sorry. I understand how that feels and it sucks. Still I think it’s time to be more serious with our analysis. Personally, I like to watch football and smash fascism, and football season just ended. Time to go to work.

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