I admit that the glee with which I watched the ball rattling loose from Tom Brady's hand was a bit much. However, in defense of my glee, I had seen the movie so many times before that a different ending seemed thrilling—especially when it arrived seemingly out of nowhere. The Patriots were down late in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead. I found myself resigned to watching another late-game Patriots comeback win for another Super Bowl victory. But then something unusual happened: Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham sacked Tom Brady, and, in doing so, stripped the football away. As the ball rolled into the arms of Eagles rookie Derek Barnett, the fate of the Patriots was all but sealed. I felt joy, and an odd satisfaction.
This was the year I truly stopped watching football. Last year, I watched only a handful of games. This year, I watched football only if it was on in the background, or if it was the bridge to a larger social function—a chance to catch up with an old friend. Avoiding football in Columbus, Ohio, is difficult, and something I always used to imagine as impossible during the fall, when Ohio State Football is king. But it's like anything else: The less you think about it, the easier it is to forget its existence.
I stopped watching football for many reasons, the same reasons most people cite when they stop watching football. This year's Super Bowl was a thrilling game, so thrilling that it is easy to forget the hit that sent Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the ground in the second quarter, leaving him motionless and then writhing—an all-too-familiar scene which I had forgotten about in the time I'd taken away from the sport. A reminder of one of the reasons I'd turned away from the game was harsh, and even harsher was how quickly I'd moved on from it after seeing it, becoming once again immersed in the game. I think a reason I stopped watching football wasn't only because of its violence, but also because of how little I was affected by it.
For all this, there is something about the spectacle of the Super Bowl that intrigues me, and that might continue to intrigue me even in coming years, when I think about football even less than I do now. I imagine that football going away is a pipe dream, one that seems touchable, thanks to football's decline in ratings and participation. This year's Super Bowl was the lowest-rated game in nine years. But it seems, to me, that football is too entrenched in the intersections of a particular kind of American Experience: one governed by organized violence, and overcoming pain in the name of victory, and the instinct to separate into tribes by rooting interests. Football will likely remain, but the motivation for why and how many engage with it may shift.
THERE'S A STRONG CASE FOR BOYCOTTING THE SUPER BOWL: Is the sporting spectacle actually any good for the city? And is the game any good for the country?
I watched the Super Bowl to watch the Patriots lose, and I'm not necessarily proud of that. But I watched the Super Bowl last year to watch the Patriots lose, and I was robbed of that small joy by a stunning and iconic comeback, in which the Patriots made up a 28–3 deficit in a quarter and a half of football, before winning 34–28 in overtime. Once that game entered the overtime period, it was clear the Patriots were going to win.
Similarly, in this year's divisional final, the Patriots played the Jacksonville Jaguars, underdogs but fan favorites for their bad but polite quarterback, Blake Bortles, and their good and overwhelmingly talkative defense. I turned on that game in its final moments because I saw the Jaguars were up late, with the potential to clinch a Super Bowl berth. I turned on the game, saw that the Patriots had the ball and were driving down the field with a chance to win the game, and I turned it off. I knew the Jaguars didn't stand a chance.
There are a lot of reasons why people dislike the Patriots, and some of them are rooted in the intersection of politics and sports. Tom Brady sported a Make America Great Again hat in his locker room in 2015. In 2016, Patriots coach Bill Belichick wrote a letter endorsing Donald Trump. These things, paired with the idea that the Patriots are a team that does things "the right way," despite infamous controversies that might suggest otherwise, make them an easy target amid the shifting social and political landscape of the National Football League.
I find myself less bothered by this than I do by the sheer inevitability of the Patriots, who do not always win but feel like they are always on the verge of winning. I am of a generation that came into sports fandom through a decade bookended by Chicago Bulls dominance, and so it isn't the idea of a dynasty that turns me away from the Patriots. It's how they dominate that is so exhausting to endure. They don't have the flair of the Golden State Warriors, a team that at least makes the dominance look fun. It is wholly unexciting to watch the Patriots dominate, made even less exciting by how little they give off the field in the way of dramatics and soundbites. The Patriots are boring, a glass of milk before the promise of sleep settles in.
I enjoy watching the Patriots lose on the largest stage their sport can offer because it upsets the order of things for a brief moment. In some ways, this is truly more about respect than it is anything else. The Patriots represent the most worthy of all adversaries, a team I dislike for no rational reason (particularly now, as I have no real rooting interest in any NFL team)—a team so good that an entire group of people will tune in just to rejoice at the chance of them losing.
A NEW STUDY PROVIDES FURTHER EVIDENCE THAT FOOTBALL CAN CAUSE BRAIN DAMAGE: SCIENTISTS LOOKED AT THE BRAINS OF 111 FORMER NFL PLAYERS. ALL BUT ONE HAD CHRONIC TRAUMATIC ENCEPHALOPATHY.
There is no team that polarizes like the Patriots, though I'm sure another one will come along soon. It is strange to imagine a world without this iteration of the Patriots, after so many people have built a life around hating them for so long. Brady, who will be 41 in August, wants to play for years and years beyond this. He certainly seems to have the tools to do so; he became the oldest NFL MVP ever at the conclusion of this season. It is easy to assume that Belichick goes as Brady goes, and so perhaps when one calls it quits, the other will follow.
There's a pretty good chance the Patriots will be back in next year's Super Bowl; they're just too good to bet against. But in a sport that blackballed a player for peacefully demonstrating against racial injustice, and in a sport where we watch players suffer brain trauma one moment and then go back out on the field the next, it feels good to see one of the standard-bearers of the league be toppled. Even if it's just one game, and even if it signifies nothing.