Is Football a Metaphor for Political Culture?
A Letter to Frank Bruni
Dear Frank Bruni,
You and I have a lot in common. We are both gay. We are both white. We are both card-carrying members of the well-educated, Northeastern, liberal elite. We both voted for Hillary Clinton (OK, my politics are to the left of yours and I voted for Bernie Sanders first, but then I voted for Hillary Clinton.) We both wept when Hillary lost. We both love professional football, despite strong evidence that it is a troubled, exploitative, racist and homophobic sport. We both live with that contradiction and others: being queer, for example, is excellent preparation for giving in a contemporary political climate, where the pieces don’t quite fit together.
But this morning you let me down. Today’s column is graphic evidence of why large swaths of the United States think that New Yorkers like us have contempt for them (and perhaps evidence of why someone should actually be editing the opinion writers at The New York Times.) In “The Existential Hell of This Year’s Super Bowl” (New York Times, January 24 2018), you take a giant, inexplicable whizz, not on the exploitative football industry itself, but on two teams and — more importantly — hundreds of thousands of Patriots and Eagles fans who are still glowing from Sunday’s games. It was a great day, Frank. The New England Patriots came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20, and the Philadelphia Eagles demolished the Minnesota Vikings number one defense in a 38-7 win. We are looking forward to the Super Bowl.
So why is the Super Bowl “an existential hell?” Because it is just an extension of Trump’s America. According to you, it will be boring because the Patriots are so good that they are always in it: you describe their come from behind victory as “about as surprising as sesame seeds on a bun.” More importantly, you don’t want them in the Super Bowl at all because prominent members of the Patriots organization — owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and QB1 Tom Brady, and some members of the team — are vocal Trump supporters.
Frank, in your critique of the Patriots (who, by the way, I detest, but in a healthy way), you take a few superficial facts and spin them into a narrative that excites political resentment towards a presidency that, many of us feel, does not share our values. “The Patriots perfectly embody our income-inequality era and the tax reform that President Trump recently signed,” you write. “Their good fortune begets more good fortune. They shamelessly hoard glory. And there’s frequently a whiff of cheating in their success.” But wait! There’s more evidence! Trump is married to a model — and Tom Brady is also married to a model! How can fans support such terrible people?
Answer: they are terrible people too.
OK then! The Philadelphia Eagles also come in for a passing slap before the end of the column too because, different as they are from the Patriots (being perennial losers) they are also imposters. “These Eagles aren’t cuddly underdogs,” you sniff, tossing cold water on a team that not only overcame the loss of its star quarterback, but that came into its own to score repeatedly on the country’s top defense after several difficult games.
So what’s wrong with a team that seems to radiate hard work, resilience and good cheer? Philadelphia fans, who you also characterize as just like Trump. The Eagles “have fans so famously obnoxious,” you write, “that after Sunday’s rout, some of them threw beer cans at a Vikings team bus as it pulled away from the stadium. Sore winning: I wonder which of our amazing leaders taught them that.”
Well actually, a group of people whose fathers threw snowballs at Santa Claus and watched the Philadelphia police blow up a house of African American activists was way ahead of Trump, Frank, but I won’t digress into the long history of reactionary politics in Philadelphia’s white working class neighborhoods. My point is: I don’t mean to defend bad behavior — but how are the players responsible for a few drunken fans tossing projectiles at a bus? And are there no fans anywhere who behave as badly as Philadelphia tailgaters? Come on. How about the riot in San Francisco after game 7 of the 2014 World Series? How about these top ten post-Superbowl riots of all time?
So that really tore it. Partly I just want to say to you, Frank, following Lin-Manuel Miranda, “And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment? Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it.”
Frank, I was there, and you weren’t.
In Philadelphia. Wading through the tailgaters. Slapping high fives with strangers. In the nose bleed, riff-raff deck at Lincoln Financial Field. Screaming my brains out with the Trump people. And Frank, a championship football game full of working class conservatives is a complicated thing that can’t be described by the kinds of superficial slights that you somehow slid by your editors. And by extension, neither can Trump voters.
I mean Frank — how many everyday Trump crowds have you actually been in? I have been in a few: a couple Tea Party rallies, some other sporting events. On Sunday, however, I was probably surrounded by more Trump supporters than I have been since, well, the last time I went to an Eagles game, sometime in the 1990s, or maybe since that Yankees game I attended in 2014. And I resent your contempt for them.
Here’s a slice of, following anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “thick description” of at least one fan community you describe as exactly like our President. Frank, attending the NFC championship was not an entirely professorial thing to do, and diving into Trump territory is a bit intimidating: my friend and I knew exactly what the risks were, since both of us grew up in and around the City of Brotherly Love. Since we look like lesbians wherever we go, on the drive down from New York, we discussed our strategy, since contempt is a poor defense when entering a large crowd dominated by highly activated and intoxicated working class white men. But a heightened level of self awareness that you hold a minority position on some things is: you search for places of compromise where you can reasonably blend in.
“We stand for the National Anthem,” my friend said.
“Affirmative,” I nodded. “Hats off, hands over hearts.”
“Check,” was the response. “No cracks about the military. Or the flag.”
We were ready. We pulled off the highway and almost immediately found a parking spot next to some guys in game jerseys who had commandeered two parking spots for some grilling and pre-gaming. Sitting in the middle of their parking lot patio was a chair intricately painted to celebrate the Eagles. “Can I take a picture of your chair?” I asked.
“You bet!” the oldest one answered. “It’s my lucky chair! I strap it to the roof of my van and bring it to every game!”
As we made our way through the acres of parking, the partying became more intense, and the scene wilder and more impressive. It was a barely controlled Eagles fan madhouse: the entire output of a dozen breweries was concentrated in a few square miles, washing down a ton or so of grilled meats and buns. Retired school buses and vans painted midnight green, decorated with Eagles logos and flags, were the centerpieces of massive family and neighborhood gatherings, everyone wearing game jerseys. People, I checked: they cost over $300 each. A game jersey is a commitment. A digital TV screen mounted on a flatbed truck broadcast the Patriots game, while kids in Eagles gear played football in between the encampments. As we drew closer to The Linc (where it seemed the party had begun sometime the night before) an angry crowd of Philly motorcycle cops had gathered. A big guy in a Carson Wentz jersey with a megaphone was repeating: “Will whoever stole the police helmet please return it now? There will be no questions asked. No questions. Please return the helmet now.”
Yes, you are right: if the crowd had been black, these white cops would already been breaking heads. But as they were probably related to many of the tailgaters, they waited a reasonable amount of time before they started smacking them. (“Did you see the police riot?” my sister in North Carolina texted me.)
The other notable pre-game event was a small group of anti-gay protesters outside the stadium. “Homos Go to Hell,” one signed affirmed. Another read: “Jesus or Hellfire.” As my friend and I stopped to take pictures, a young white woman with a game jersey on and green glitter over her eyes stopped too. “But I love homosexuals!” she cried, dismayed. Her partner, a big burly white guy (and yes, Frank, a Trump supporter I am sure) said: “Yeah! We’re Eagles fans! We’re not homophobic,” a charming, if probably imprecise, assertion. But I appreciated the sentiment all the same as I contemplated my trip to Hell. “What do you think they are doing here?” he asked me.
“Well,” I said, “If one out of ten Americans is homosexual, statistically there are probably between 9 and 10,000 homosexuals here too.”
He shook his head. “Maybe,” he said. “But I think they are fake protesters. I think someone is paying them.” Which suggests that he and I may disagree about a lot of policy points, but perhaps together we have a similar, um, critique of the current political culture?
In any case, Frank, I won’t go through a moment by moment account of our evening at the football stadium with the Trump people you have such contempt for, except that it was a glorious evening (OK, not for Vikings fans) in which I felt more embraced by a like-minded community than I normally do in real life. This fantasy is, of course, the essence of fandom. It is a phenomenon that Benedict Anderson calls “imagined community,” in which a nation of people (in this case, Eagles Nation) experiencing the same events and the same emotions simultaneously. On the one side of us, we had a man and his daughter who had had season tickets for twenty years; on the other, a young demobilized Iraq war veteran and his girlfriend who asked me to take a picture of them together, and who gave me enormous happy hugs every time the Eagles scored. Which was a lot.
When was the last time you hugged a Trump voter, Frank?
We sang the Eagles fight song together; we howled at the Vikings on third down. We felt the same surge of emotion right before kickoff, as the stadium went silent and this clip, from Philadelphia’s signature movie, was broadcast:
And part of what I realized Frank, as the crowd erupted, and our underdog Eagles came roaring out onto the field, through pillars spouting fireworks like big gunpowder penises, is that Trump Year 1 has been kind of a shitty year for everyone, whether you are a Trump supporter or not a Trump supporter. We all needed this.
Being able to acknowledge that in the purple space of Lincoln Financial field was liberating, and I was perhaps happier and less anxious about the future than I have been since November 2016. I am grateful to — and felt great love for — the tens of thousands of Trump supporters who reminded me that I am a Philadelphian to the core, and we are all in this together. Yes, sometimes a few beer cans get tossed at a bus. But we all needed — and this political nation needs — a win. And it isn’t coming Frank, unless we drop the condescension and superficial judgments and learn how to win together in such a way that a win for half the nation isn’t a loss for the other half.
What are we waiting for?
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.
A prior version of this post stated incorrectly that the Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers; they defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thanks to the comments section for the correction.