In case you weren’t watching, the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots on Sunday to win the AFC Championship. Yes, Peyton Manning beat Tom Brady. The Patriots lost. The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl.
I live in New England. Specifically, I live in the not-so-demilitarized zone between the big and very impressive sports market centered on Boston and the massive but not so impressive sports market hovering over New York, Long Island and that state to the west where they make chemicals and torture political opponents by creating awful traffic jams. Most people in Connecticut choose the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Islanders, Rangers or the Bruins and the Giants or the Patriots. Not a lot of people that I know root for the Mets or the Jets. I don’t root for any of those teams and I’m not a fan of NBA basketball so I left those teams off the list.
Let me be clear, I am not a Patriots fan. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I am a Steelers fan. I am a black and gold wearing – been to Heinz Field, Three Rivers, Forbes Field – ate the burger – drank the beer – bought the tee-shirt – convinced that the Immaculate Reception was valid – Steelers fan. I know, you were clear on that, but I just wanted to make sure. So, am I happy that the Patriots lost? That’s where the title of this post comes into play. The answer is complicated.
First off, it’s not like fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers have a love affair with the Denver Broncos. We have met them almost 30 times in regular season games and they have the advantage. We have met 6 or 7 times in the postseason, including the game we lost in 2011 while breaking in the NFL’s new overtime rules. So yeah, no love there. Then again, Denver is in Denver and I’m in Connecticut. So when the Steelers lost to the Broncos, nobody was walking around my office all smart and cocky. And…that’s another area where this gets complicated. When the Steelers lost to the Patriots last year (it’s over, it’s ‘last year’ for us and the Patriots), nobody was walking around my office all smart and cocky.
I think that the reason for the relative civility is because we are all fans and we all appreciate people who are fans. I don’t have to like the Patriots to know how my friends felt Sunday evening. I’ve been in that room, in front of that television and I’ve felt that feeling. I don’t like the Patriots, I was actually rooting for Denver, but I like my friends and I felt bad for them. I think this is an emotional capacity that maybe only sports fans have or that maybe men only reveal when sports are involved. The empathy we have for a fellow “fan” is actually stronger than our personal wants and desires. New England has beat us in regular season games and in postseason games and my friends, while ecstatic over their team’s victory, have always been pretty nice to me. In fact the only people who seem to be jerks about the losses, are people who don’t really follow football.
Once you identify yourself as a fan, it’s hard to be a jerk. Regardless of the sport, sooner or later your team is going to lose. I was in Pittsburgh during the dynasty years, but we remained painfully aware of the fact that we could lose. Sometimes I’m not sure that the younger Patriots fans today understand that their team can lose, but the long-term fans know this all too well.
There is a point when everyone gets to be a jerk though, and that’s during the off-season. It usually starts after the NFL Draft is over, when fans start to size up their team’s potential and when everyone has a clean slate. That’s when chests are pumped, trash is talked and sometime bets are made. I don’t usually bet on sports, and I never bet on games involving my teams.
I once bet a coworker simply that the Patriots would not make it to the Super Bowl. This was before the season started, and he was certain that New England would return to the Super Bowl and win after losing in the Super Bowl the previous year. I made the remark “this is a stupid bet, for all you know Brady could break a leg in the opening game.” That was in 2008. Tom Brady was injured in the opening game, and in spite of having a winning season, the Patriots didn’t make it into the playoffs. I never had the heart to collect on that bet.