You're not always going to hate the Patriots, you know. Hatred of the New England Patriots has been the central organizing principle of the NFL for nearly two decades now. It has driven ratings and storylines and internet debate and a million clucking heads on television, making a good deal of people a good deal of money. At times, it can seem like the New England Patriots were specifically created to inspire people to hate them. You have:
- The handsome quarterback with the supermodel wife and perfect life, whose otherworldly, unprecedented success has almost certainly cost your favorite team at least one championship. He also maybe had a slightly deflated football, maybe.
- The evil chess master coach whose competitiveness is so all-encompassing that he barely seems human anymore, Emperor Palatine crossed with Voldemort with a splash of Steve Bannon.
- The lunatic fan base that loves its team so much -- and has become so provincially protective of it -- that you can predict them to win their division and go to the AFC Championship Game and still spend the next two days getting yelled at for it.
- Two juicy scandals, Spygate (which had some merit) and Deflategate (which was aggressively stupid), which fueled suspicion that they somehow had not earned all their championships and gave opponents (mostly false) self-justification to view all the Patriots' accomplishments with skepticism.
- A connection so close to the most unpopular president in American history that their owner gave him a Super Bowl ring.
That's the perfect storm right there. You couldn't design a more hateable team than that. But the primary reason the Patriots are so hated isn't based in geography, or technological malfeasance, or politics: It's because they win. The Pats have kicked the NFL's butt, in essentially every possible way, for almost 20 years now. As a new season begins Thursday night, a season with its usual challenges and off-field headaches, we are back where we have been essentially every season since the Patriots upset the Rams three months after September 11, back when we briefly, very briefly, were all cheering for them: It's the Patriots, and everybody else.
It is strange to read NFL season previews, almost every single one of which ends with some variation of "the Patriots are the obvious, overwhelming, no-duh favorites to win the Super Bowl," in the wake of last year's Super Bowl. Obviously, the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead halfway through the third quarter, and that's something they're going to have to live with forever. But let's not forget what we were saying about the Patriots at that particular moment. It wasn't just "the Falcons are killing them." It was, "the Patriots look so old. They're toast. The dynasty is over." Remember these Tweets, from during that Super Bowl?
The Falcons looked like the future of football: speed everywhere, getting the ball to your burners in space, going nuts. The Pats looked old and tired and beaten. Now, after a quarter and a half that might be the most amazing in Super Bowl history, they're young and fresh and dominant and Obvious Favorites again? If the Patriots' comeback had fallen short and they had lost the Super Bowl, would we all be calling them the clear favorites in 2017? We wouldn't, right? That's just a quarter-and-a-half of football, switching the Patriots from "over" to "better than ever."
But that's what the Patriots do to us: They make us so emotional. Everything is always The Best Ever or The Worst Ever. They're either the greatest or the most devious. There is never an middle ground on the Patriots, and it's tough not to notice that this same all-or-nothing mindset -- a mindset one might call downright Belichickian -- has seeped in throughout the entire NFL. Counting the year before and after the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI -- and at this point I feel obliged to remind you that the entire sports world was cheering for Belichick over Kurt Warner in that game, a moment in history that will never be repeated in any realm for as long as humanity exists as a species -- the NFL had eight champions in nine years, with random teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland and Tennessee and Atlanta showing up in the Super Bowl. But the Patriots, as they always do, immediately began to weaponize the Big Game: In the 14 years since, they've won four Super Bowls, and the Super Bowls they didn't win were mostly defined by the winners' relation to the Patriots. "The Giants have their number; Peyton Manning finally broke through; the Steelers only win when they don't have to go through the Patriots."
They have owned the NFL, on the field and off, for so long that it's difficult to remember a time they didn't. The last time the Patriots weren't the center of the NFL, the rookie of the year was Mike Anderson, a guy who is now 43 years old. Barack Obama couldn't even get into the Democratic National Convention. Donald Trump was having a fight with Jesse Ventura on the Howard Stern show. Lots of things have happened.
And here's the thing: Eventually, we're all going to pretend we loved them. This is what we do with our champions. Those 1990s Dallas Cowboys are popular now, but man, they were despised in their time. Those Steelers championship teams were considered among the dirtiest in the NFL, and picking on Terry Bradshaw was half the fun of paying attention to the sport in the first place. Joe Montana was considered by many to be aloof and a bit of a jerk. (And let's not forget this Jerry Rice story.) But we don't care about that today, because now they are simply the winners. They're the champs. In our memories, they were perfect, because they won: That's the only way history keeps score. Ted Williams might have been disliked while he was playing, but just thinking of Teddy Ballgame right now makes you smile, doesn't it? Time gives everybody halos.
In 20 years, Tom Brady's going to be a smiling, empty face on your television screens, the greatest quarterback of all time, a champion everyone's aspiring to be. Belichick is going to get the Lombardi treatment, the subject of all sorts of books about "leadership" you can buy at the airport. They're all going to get trotted out at Super Bowls for decades to come, and we are going to all cheer them. This is what happens to retired athletes who won titles. We can't stay mad at them forever. You're going to be sitting at a bar one day, talking about Brady, and you're going to say, "You gotta respect him," and 2016 You is going to HATE you but 2033 You is going to be totally right. The future always scrubs out the past. We'll be nostalgic for things we didn't even like when they were happening.
So, if anything, we should revel in these last waning seasons of Patriots hate. Cheering against New England is one of the few things that united us in these trying times. Eventually we will stop. Eventually we will find someone else to hate, and we'll convince ourselves that the Patriots weren't that bad, that they weren't like these young punks of the year 2028. We'll canonize them. That's just what we do. So enjoy this Pats hatred while you can. In his wonderful book To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, which is about hating the Duke Blue Devils (from the perspective of a North Carolina fan), author Will Blythe quotes an essay from 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt called "On the Pleasure of Hating:"
Nature seems made of antipathies. Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. ... Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: Hatred alone is immortal.
This hatred you have of the Patriots right now, it's not immortal: You'll find someone else to transfer that hatred to someday. But it is pure, and it is yours -- it is ours. Hate the Patriots while you can. Someday you'll let it go. But not right now. To hate like this is to be happy forever.
Subscribe to Will's weekly newsletter; and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.