In the 2000 NFL draft, the New England Patriots’ new head coach Bill Belichick chose Tom Brady as the 199th overall pick. The following season, after starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured in game two, Brady played his first NFL game. He started the rest of the games in the season, ending with a record of 11-5.
After making his way through the Raiders and Steelers, Brady and the Patriots faced the Rams — “The Greatest Show on Turf,” in the Super Bowl. In that game, everyone who wasn’t from St. Louis was cheering for Brady, even though a Rams victory seemed inevitable. However, when the Patriots emerged victorious, Brady was named Super Bowl MVP and everyone thought it was a perfect Cinderella story.
Fast forward 16 years and Brady has only grown more successful, but is now the most hated player in the NFL. It says something that here at JMU, where most people are from Virginia and therefore likely to be Redskins fans, divisional rivals of the Eagles, I was the only one at the Super Bowl party wearing a Patriots jersey.
Most Redskins fans would probably cheer for the Cowboys over the Patriots at this point. The crowds wanted Brady to be successful in 2002, but not in 2018. It seems unexplainable, yet immediately obvious: We cheer for the underdog until they’re not the underdog anymore. We cheer for the underdog until they’re not the underdog anymore.
Since David stepped onto the field to challenge Goliath in the Bible, humans have been obsessed with rags-to-riches stories. This sounds respectable: We want people to succeed. The problem comes, however, when we start cheering for riches-to-rags as well. Success begins as a virtue, but once it’s attained, it’s a mortal sin.
Perhaps this comes from some innate desire to see completed arcs — the rise followed by the fall. Perhaps we’re just always cheering for whoever the new underdog is. I think wherever it comes from, it’s a little hypocritical. Imagine being one of these underdogs: On your rise to success, everyone adores you, but once you achieve what they wanted you to achieve, they cast you out, “like a leper,” as Heath Ledger’s Joker would say.
That’s got to be confusing. The masses are fickle and apparently always want the opposite of whatever is going on. Jesus said in Matthew 20:16, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” but I think he meant it as a one-time, end-of-the-world requisite. The masses want a perpetual reversal of fortunes for all in the public sphere.
The argument of cheering for the underdog all the time doesn’t really hold up. The Patriots have never been the heavy favorite in any of their Super Bowl appearances, except perhaps in 2008 against the New York Giants. None of the other matchups have really had an underdog, so the hatred of the Patriots in these games doesn’t have any solid justification. We want them to fail because they’re good, which isn’t the same thing as wanting them to succeed in 2002 because they were worse.
Cheering for the underdog is a powerful cultural force, particularly here in the land of the American dream, but has no definite good or bad in theory. In practice, it can be good when you frame it as always wanting the downtrodden to be successful. It can be bad when you frame it as always wanting the successful to be downtrodden. Punching someone right before they’re about to hurt someone is good if you do it because you want to save the soon-to-be victim. Punching someone right before they’re about to hurt someone is bad if you do it because you just want an excuse to punch someone. Intent is important.
More than that, awareness is important. After all, intentions never quite line up with outcomes and good intentions frequently lead to ruinous results. Always cheering for the underdog, even with the good intent of wanting them to have success and be happy, is reckless. If Floyd Mayweather had been the underdog against Pacquiao or Mayweather, I’d say that’s no reason to cheer for him. That man beat his wife half to death in front of his 9- and 10-year-old kids, whom he also threatened.
All that being said, there’s not much moral consequence to who you cheer for in a sporting event. But through the lens of the Patriots’ notoriety, we can examine phenomenons of our culture. The microcosm of the Tom Brady case is notable because we should be aware of what those cultural phenomenons are. Identifying the underdogs and the overlords could have practical use in many fields of analysis, from marketing to psychology to political science. Cultural introspection has always been a key to cultural progress.
Luke Borman is a junior international affairs major. Contact Luke at email@example.com.