Another Super Bowl Sunday is upon us, and once again, the nation is gathering to resume one of its favorite unofficial pastimes: yelling about the New England Patriots.
If you don’t pay much attention to sports, you might not know that as of 2019, the Patriots are frankly astonishing. During the era of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who both joined the team in 2000, the Patriots have gone to the Super Bowl nine times; 2019 marks their third consecutive Super Bowl. They’ve won 16 division titles, made it to the AFC championships for the last eight years in a row, and, since 2001, have never had a losing season.
Yet compared to other uncontested sports dynasties — for example, the era of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls — the Patriots’ longstanding dominance over the NFL hasn’t exactly inspired nationwide support and pride. Quite the opposite, in fact: hate, or at least deep resentment, over the Patriots’ success has become so common that Patriots fans, and even the Patriots themselves, have started embracing the hate as a badge of honor.
Going into Sunday’s Big Game, you might think America would be somewhat evenly divided between the two teams, with about half supporting the Patriots and half supporting their opponents, the Los Angeles Rams. This type of split would make sense, especially since the Rams’ secured their Super Bowl standing with a highly contested NFC championship win against the New Orleans Saints, benefiting from a missed call that was so intensely controversial it has since prompted the NFL commissioner to consider changing the league’s rules.
“It’s all anyone talked about, how the Saints should have won [and deserved to be in the Super Bowl],” one Patriots fan told me. “That’s how strong Patriot hatred is, that you’re rooting for the team that robbed the other one.”
You might think Patriots hate is easy to understand — that it boils down to jealousy, plain and simple. And you’re not entirely wrong. But as I learned when I looked closer, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
So if you want to grab your popcorn and brush up on your sports fandom psychology before Sunday, you’ve come to the right place. Here are seven big reasons why people hate the New England Patriots.
Jealousy, at least in this case, isn’t as simplistic a motivating factor as it might seem. Multiple Pats haters with strong feelings of resentment toward the team described to me emotions that were less about hating the Patriots and more about feeling sadness for their own favorite teams, and the lost opportunities that resulted from the Patriots’ dominance.
“For me, the real turning point came when the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to come back and beat my favorite team and the team I primarily cover, the Atlanta Falcons, in Super Bowl LI,” Jeanna Thomas, a sports reporter for Vox sister site SB Nation, told me.
“That loss crushed my spirit in a uniquely Atlanta sports way. And while it’s not the Patriots’ fault that the Falcons blew that 25-point lead, I’ve got to have somewhere to place my anger about it, so it goes in the Patriots’ general direction.”
In other words, because the Patriots are so dominant, they sometimes serve as a repository for a lot of displaced emotions that fans don’t want to direct at the teams they love.
Ben Oliva, a sports psychologist who works for the New York sports counseling service SportStrata, told Vox that a perceived imbalance and lack of fairness with regard to the Patriots’ dominance is also key. “People in general have a desire for things to be fair, and when they seem unfair, it makes us angry and spiteful,” he said in an email.
“It seems unfair how often they make it to the Super Bowl. Other teams ‘should’ get a chance to go too. Other fans ‘should’ get the opportunity to root for their team in the Super Bowl. The Pats are like the bully on the playground who won’t let anyone else go down the slide.”
“Nobody likes a team that wins too much,” another Patriots hater, SB Nation’s Harry Lyles, told me. But all of the fans and haters I talked to also expressed plenty of admiration — if begrudgingly — for the Patriots’ incredible success. “They’re perfect as far as a, ‘How Your Team Should Be Run’ standpoint,” Lyles said. “And it just makes us all mad in the head because it’s like, why can’t our team do that?”
Jealousy: It’s complicated!
2) They’re associated with Donald Trump
Patriots owner Robert Kraft is an established friend of the Trump family, and donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration celebrations after the 2016 election. Coach Belichick is likewise a known Trump associate. And while Brady’s wife, the supermodel Gisele, has distanced herself and her husband from endorsing Trump, she’s a bit of an outlier: Trump has proclaimed that Brady is a supporter, Brady has expressed his admiration of Trump in the past (“It’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to accomplish”) — and, well, there’s the Make America Great Again cap that appeared in Brady’s locker during Trump’s campaign. Recently, no less than Harry Potter himself explicitly cited the hat as a reason why he’ll be rooting for the Rams on Sunday.
And when the team’s most prominent player has come to be so prominently associated with a Trump endorsement, even though it’s not entirely clear whether it actually happened, it’s easy to assume that Brady’s Trump fandom represents something about the culture of the team itself.
Yet while some Patriots fans told me that the team’s associations with Trump are a real moral quandary, others brushed them off, noting that many of the team’s members — including Brady — opted not to visit the White House in protest after their 2017 Super Bowl win. Still, in part thanks to Trump’s frequent embrace of the team’s success as an apparent mirror for what he views as his own achievements, it’s undeniable that the Patriots have become associated with Trumpism in the minds of many people.
“They are the only Trumpy sports team,” one Patriots fan who described himself as “begrudging” told me. “Fuck that.”
3) Boston fans have a reputation for being obnoxious (but there’s a reason for that)
Despite their name, the Patriots are generally considered to be Boston’s football team. Technically, the Patriots’ hometown of Foxborough, Massachusetts is 20 miles away from both Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. But while Rhode Islanders have an equal claim to Patriots fandom, the team itself is much more commonly associated with Boston. So this one isn’t all on the Patriots.
Between the Patriots’ dominance and the Boston Red Sox’s long turnaround from being a cursed franchise to experiencing unprecedented levels of victory, Boston sports fans are more than a little smug these days — though the perception of Boston fans as particularly obnoxious spans generations. A number of people I spoke to mentioned a general animosity toward Boston-area fandom, even though it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. (However, multiple people also mentioned many Boston residents’ less-than-subtle racism as another factor in their negative opinion of the city.)
Oliva — who incidentally used to work for the Red Sox — was upfront about his former city’s flaws. “I think the culture of Boston fandom plays a part in this,” he told me. “Boston fans, stereotypically, are unapologetically loud and proud. They believe their city and their teams are the greatest in the world. People like winners that are humble and gracious, not cocky and obnoxious.”
Still, some Boston fans are self-aware about their behavior — and SB Nation’s Christian D’Andrea, who recently wrote about Patriots hate from the perspective of a diehard fan, eloquently made the point that Boston fans’ attitude of kneejerk defensiveness evolved out of decades of losing:
“My father lived most of his life with the Patriots being terrible,” one fan told me. “And when they made the Super Bowl this year, he was sitting on the couch and he said, in this tone of quiet awe, ‘It’s just all unbelievable.’ There’s a breed of Patriots fan who grew up with everyone losing constantly. They cannot believe this century and they have never really gotten over it — I see it on their faces every single time.”
So next time you’re tempted to get mad at a Boston fan for gloating too much, or getting too worked up in defense of their faves, remember that, in proper historical context, they’re really still new at this winning thing. Perhaps they can be forgiven for being a little ungracious.
4) Many people think they’re cheaters (whether or not that’s true)
Honestly, most people I spoke with weren’t too heated up, four years later, about the massive scandal that was 2015’s Deflategate, in which multiple Patriots players were accused of having deflated footballs below the NFL’s standard air pressure during a January conference championship game — an illegal move because it makes the footballs easier to control.
But even besides that scandal, which ultimately dragged on for the better part of a year and resulted in an eventual four-game suspension for Brady because he likely knew about the illegal activity, ongoing rumors of cheating and rule-bending have dogged the Patriots for years. Among the loopiest is a longstanding rumor that at the team’s home field of Gillette Stadium, the visitors’ locker room is bugged so that team spies can listen in on opposing team strategies.
That rumor may have stemmed from the Patriots’ dalliance with actual illegal team spying, a.k.a. Spygate, a 2007 controversy in which Coach Belichick instructed Patriots staff to illegally videotape the hand signals of opposing teams. Spygate incurred massive fines for the organization — specifically, a $500,000 fine for Belichick. Also, just days after the scandal broke, a report in the Boston Herald claimed that the team might have pulled a similar trick during Super Bowl 36 in 2002; though the paper quickly retracted the entire story, citing unreliable sourcing, it further helped tarnish the Patriots’ reputation.
Finally, during the 2014–’15 NFL season — the same season of Deflategate — the Patriots heavily skirted NFL rules by essentially mindfucking their opponents during games by using misdirection to confuse them regarding which Patriots players were eligible and ineligible to receive the ball in a given play. The controversial strategy was technically legal, but it was such a nasty trick — a “clear deception,” according to one coach — that NFL teams voted to ban it. Was it cheating? No. Was it dirty? Pretty much.
Taken together, all of these situations have given the Patriots a reputation for cheating. Following Deflategate, perceptions of the team, and Brady in particular, as being cheaters have almost attained meme status. A graphic designer working for a Pittsburgh CBS affiliate newsroom was recently fired for placing a graphic over footage of Brady which described him as a “known cheater.” And a Kentucky elementary school student recently won a science fair by examining a hypothesis arguing that Brady is indeed a cheater.
Regardless of what’s been proven and what hasn’t, people clearly care about the Patriots’ reputation for cheating. “[It] paint[s] the picture of a team that’s willing to break the rules to win,” Oliva said.
5) The Patriots’ wins are too streamlined and automated to be interesting
The modern-era Patriots are known for dramatic comebacks, usually spearheaded by Brady working last-second miracles. But apart from these occasional high-profile moments, there’s not always a lot of romance in the way the Patriots play football.
Widely considered to be a strategic genius — one of his defensive strategies even has its own spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Coach Belichick develops team strategy with a heavy emphasis on adjustability from week to week, relying on versatile teammates and unpredictable plays depending on who his team is playing against. That also means that he tends to go for less showy picks during draft rounds, approaching team-building like “a jigsaw puzzle,” with an emphasis on overall player value rather than what position they play.
But that method doesn’t really lend itself to big, heartstopping moments of sports drama. “Clean cut, they make the trades that nobody thinks to make, and get the most out of players before dumping them off before they hit a sharp decline,” Lyles told me. “I think people are annoyed with how robotic they are.”
It also doesn’t help that the idea of the “Patriot Way” — supposedly a value system gleaned from the Patriots’ modern era — has caught on among both Patriots fans and detractors. The chief tenet of the Patriot Way seems to basically be to just keep winning. But no one really wants to see “just keep winning” treated like some kind of guide to life. “The whole ‘Patriot Way’ thing and stuff will just make your eyes roll out of your head,” Lyles added.
6) The Patriots are billing themselves as the “underdog” in Super Bowl 53 — when we all know they’re anything but
Remember what I said above about how the Patriots’ on-field strategies don’t lend themselves to drama? Apparently that doesn’t stop them from capitalizing on it where they can in order to galvanize their fans. Witness Tom Brady’s recent assertion that the Patriots are the “underdogs” going into the 2019 Super Bowl.
After the team got off to a rocky start this past football season, the media largely played up this narrative, with article after article asserting that Tom Brady was definitely, undoubtedly on the decline. (The Boston Globe, meanwhile, pointed out that this theme was a hoary chestnut.) After being heavily projected to lose January’s AFC championship to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots pulled off a win and secured their place in yet another Super Bowl — and Brady and teammate Chris Hogan snarked about the negativity that had floated around about him and his teammates:
Brady’s read on the public’s assessment of the Patriots wasn’t inaccurate. “I hate Brady,” my roommate volunteered the moment she found out I was writing about the Super Bowl. “He’s overrated.” But ironically, the omnipresent hype of his achievements that causes people feel that Tom Brady is overrated is the same quality that causes something like a mass media frenzy when he plays at a level slightly below his best. This season, the feeling that something might be lackluster about Brady’s performance seemed to permeate media coverage of the team as a whole — which likely gave Brady et. al. the sense that they were fighting an uphill battle.
“The cherry on top of all of this in 2019 is that the Patriots are claiming to be underdogs, which is well and truly hilarious,” Lyles told me. Describing the media’s role in propping up this theme — ironic, since sports media spent so much time handwringing over Brady’s decline to begin with — Lyles allowed, “We [the media] could honestly ignore it, because we know it’s stupid.”
“But since people are calling out [the underdog narrative], it’s getting worse. Because now we can’t just call it bullshit — now it’s a race to see who can have the strongest ‘It’s Bullshit’ take.” Among the wide range of underdog debunkers, Sports Illustrated may have hedged its bets the best, noting that “The Patriots are underdogs in their own minds, and that’s what matters.”
A few fans have grown defensive. “They were projected to lose in Kansas City,” one told me. “Is that not the definition of ‘underdog’????” (It is, in fact, the definition of underdog.)
But others have eye-rolled along with the haters. “Most of the Pats fans I know have actually been laughing about the underdog thing, including the one I live with,” Thomas told me.
“I’ve found it hard to root for the Patriots of late simply because they’ve been so successful,” she said. “I love an underdog, and the Patriots are the antithesis of that. They haven’t been as good this year, but I don’t think anyone actually doubts them. They’ve been so unstoppable for so long.”
7) The Patriots’ dominance may have ruined its team spirit
Perhaps this isn’t a reason to hate the Patriots so much as a reason to mourn them; but embedded within the fears and anxieties that Tom Brady’s career is coming to a close, and that the Belichick-Brady dynasty will soon end, are anxieties that speak to a shift in the Patriots’ culture.
Among Patriots fans I spoke with, Vox Head of Video Joe Posner told me that he was disappointed in the way the team’s focus has shifted over the years.
“They were the first team to run out at the Super Bowl as a team,” he said, referencing the 2002 Super Bowl, in which they broke with precedent by entering the stadium as a team instead of with a fanfare for each individual player, a practice that’s now standard throughout the NFL. (The Patriots would go on to win that game, against the St. Louis Rams.) “They had two quarterbacks! They were studious about the whole team strategy.”
Posner feels that Brady’s dominance — and his cult of personality — has since changed the way the Patriots operate. “Belichick helped them keep dominance by never letting stars matter more than the team strength,” he told me. “He would regularly ditch older stars to be building up the future of the team.”
Posner couldn’t deny that Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen, had made his impact on the Patriots entirely from skill and not power clashes. But, he feels, “There’s factionalism now… There was one team culture and it was beautiful. The egalitarianism has to return.”
In essence, through no fault of the Patriots’ own, they may be showing signs of having been torpedoed by their own success — both because of their aging line of star players, and because they’ve lost the magic once associated with their fairy tale rise as a football franchise during the early aughts. By the same token, the incredible serendipity of Tom Brady’s stunning career as a quarterback, which has led to him having an unprecedented amount of mastery over his team and over the football field, has also led the public to see the team, and Brady, as essentially one and the same. So if you hate Tom Brady, for whatever reason, you probably hate the Patriots too.
But as Posner points out, the truth is more complicated; the Patriots’ once-united team harmony has become more polyphonic as they’ve weathered the vicissitudes of the game, politics, controversy, and public attention. Perhaps this means that the idea of hating the Patriots is a false construct — a lie built around a myth that never really existed. The Patriots who will enter Mercedes-Benz stadium as one team on Sunday will be playing to win, of course; but even more, they’ll be playing to protect the image of the perfect, perfectly unified franchise, in order to keep it alive and well for fans.
And ironically, the more you hate them, the more you’re helping the myth of the Patriots remain strong.
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