HOUSTON -- Any time you write about sports on the internet -- something I have been doing for far longer than I would like to admit, for far longer than any sane person should -- you learn which fan bases are flashpoints. You do your best to be as fair as possible, but you'll never be truly able to shed all your biases and partiality, because humans are incapable of such a thing, no matter how hard one tries. You just do your best.
But there are fan bases out there, every writer knows going in, that will seize on even the tiniest slight and attack with righteous fury and spittle. Sometimes this is innocent fun: Tweaking fans of the Cowboys, the Cardinals, the Warriors, Notre Dame, some others is half the fun of talking about sports in the first place. But sometimes it gets ugly. It was only a couple of years ago that #FSUTwitter, in which otherwise reasonable human beings coalesced together to actively scream in the face of anyone who dared remind the planet that their police department dragged its collective feet to investigate a rape because it involved their star quarterback, essentially took over any discussion of college football. Slate's Josh Levin rightly compared the digital mob to Gamergate, and Michelle Beadle -- standing with female sports journalists everywhere -- ended up in such a prolonged fight with #FSUTwitter that she ended up outing one as a sex offender.
If FSU, in any form, is a part of your handle or bio, I thank you for making it easier for me to separate the filth. #WishItWorkedInRealLife- Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) May 12, 2015
And let's not even get started on Penn State.
Sports fandom is inherently provincial. We are not cheering for teams, or players, or even uniforms, not really. We're cheering for our town, our people, our fellow obsessives. The players on our favorite teams are not from our hometowns and have almost nothing in common with us; it is not about them. It is about us. When we see the logo of our favorite team, we are not thinking about the people who wear it on their chest or on their helmet; we are thinking about our own history with that logo, how it was on our favorite t-shirt as a kid, how much joy it gave us when they won the first championship of our lifetimes, how we took our spouse to a game when we first started dating, how much we want our children to share it with us. We think of our homes, and our schools, and our churches, and our grocery stores. Our teams aren't just teams. They're representative of who we are. And we take that extremely seriously. Sometimes -- often -- far too seriously.
Which brings me to Boston.
I love the city of Boston. It is one of the loveliest cities in America, awash with culture and art and history. There aren't many places I enjoy more than sitting in the stands at Fenway Park. The city is this perfect combination of urgency in the present and currency steeped in tradition, a place where young people provide the energy while still making sure they never forget where they come from. It is a place of optimism, and idealism, and passion, not to mention deep intelligence: I would guess that half of the 20 smartest people I know -- as well as many of my favorite writers -- all grew up and/or reside in the New England area. The place is amazing.
But this much is undeniable: The sports fandom in this town has become so frenzied that I am increasingly worried that it will careen dangerously out of control. The center cannot hold. You people are getting too nuts.
At Roger Goodell's press conference Wednesday, he dodged the usual number of questions, including a particularly egregious moment when he claimed not to be paying any attention to President Trump's Muslim ban or anything else because he was "so focused on the Super Bowl." (One of Goodell's few skills is his ability to so unerringly portray a useful idiot.") But most questions weren't about Trump, or the Chargers moving to Los Angeles, or concussions, or anything like that. Most questions were, of course, still about Deflategate. Do you think you handled it well? Why haven't you gone back to Foxborough for a game? Will you be OK with handing a trophy to Tom Brady? What do you have to say to Patriots fans? Are you ashamed to show your face in New England? Did you see what Brady's dad said about you? What do you think a Bostonian would say to your face right now, if they could? Why do you hate Dunkin Donuts?
I do not inherently disagree with the thrust of some of these questions. Goodell bungled the Deflategate investigation in every way, turning something minor and sort of stupid into a major scandal and prolonged court case because … well, I'm still not exactly sure why. I understand why Bostonians are mad at Goodell. They should be. He was wrong. Tom Brady should have never been suspended. If Brady shivs Goodell when he hands over that trophy on Sunday night, Brady will have earned every right.
But it was the tone. Every question -- from every venue, from Dan Shaughnessy to random Providence radio stations -- had this populist vibe, this "hey, Rogah, here's where you can suck it!" undercurrent. It was obvious the questions weren't for Roger; they were for the viewers and listeners back home, a way to posture, to preen, to show off that, hey, we're with you, Boston, eff this guy. They were not in Houston. They were in the floating New England embassy, and it was, as always, them against the world.
For all the talk of Patriot Nation and Red Sox Nation and all the rest … Boston fans are starting to feel like their own actual nation now. They are isolated, and protectionist, and hostile and aggressive toward any foreign threats. They have taken the slings and arrows of Deflategate and Spygate and everything else and internalized them, weaponized them, turned them into a cycle of perpetual aggrievement, a paranoia that someone, anyone, everyone, is after them at all times, trying to take away what's theirs. And there was, initially, some reason for this suspicion: Again, the Deflategate investigation has always seemed like both a witch hunt and a way for the NFL to use something silly and pointless to distract from its far more serious issues (CTE, labor issues, the overall decreasing value of the product).
But it has gone too far. Three weeks ago, talented SB Nation writer Charlotte Wilder, a Boston native, wrote a smart, reasoned piece at the inherent conflict between liberal Massachusetts and Boston and the fact that Tom Brady and (especially) Bill Belichick seem to have such warm feelings toward President Trump. The piece was measured and careful and diligent and everything you'd want from a story about something that is undeniably a major conversation piece surrounding the New England Patriots. But the mere notion that it might be critical of Brady and the Pats -- a notion Wilder explicitly discussed in her piece -- brought out everybody's fangs, particularly the gents at WEEI Radio, who live for this sort of border war fight. There was a coordinated, sustained attack on Wilder that is still sort of going on now. Wilder got it particularly bad -- because she's a woman -- but it was nothing new: When you criticize Boston teams, you are an outside invader and must be vanquished.
The irony of New England's aggrievement, of course, is that no region has less to be aggrieved about than New England. They currently employ the greatest quarterback and the greatest coach in NFL history. They have one of the wealthiest and one of the most well-run baseball franchises. Their basketball team has a wealth of future draft picks, a ton of young talent and the most exciting coach in the sport. They've won nine championships this century and look poised to win their 10th. It is reasonable to ask Bostonians, well, why are you so angry?
That is perhaps a question best left to sociologists. But of course, this bunker mentality is not just a Boston problem, or even a sports one. An inability, or unwillingness, to understand or acknowledge a viewpoint different than one's own is standard issue for our national discourse at this point. Boston sports fans have just mastered it: Turns out they're champions of this, too.
But eventually, this incredible era of Boston sports will fade. Brady and Belichick will retire. The Yankees will win the World Series. Brad Stevens will get old and make some mistakes. This is the natural cycle of things. Will Boston provincialism continue to reign then, or will it replaced by the fatalism of the pre-Belichick era, that uniquely Boston sense that the sky was falling, and that it was falling exclusively on them? Right now, this exact moment, is the happiest time Boston sports fans have ever had. But I dunno. Do they seem happy to you?