Forget about the victories, the records, the ongoing quest for perfection. 19-0. Can they do it? As the New England Patriots make their case for historical greatness, one question looms larger still.
Namely, can the Pats become one of the most hated teams of all time?
After all, winning is easy. Just outscore your opponents. Voila! But provoking soul-searing ire? Inspiring frenzied loathing from all sides? Getting millions to tune in for the sole purpose of cheering your prayed-for potential demise?
That takes work. That takes luck. That takes a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic alignment of the moon, the stars and Bill Belichick's clandestine surveillance tapes.
The Patriots haven't made many friends this season. And that's without mentioning the Baltimore Ravens. But where does New England rank in terms of epochal sports abhorrence? Page 2 breaks it down.
Annoying attribute: Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that hell is other people. On the other hand, the French existentialist never had a channel guide featuring a two-hour "SportsCenter" special edition about the New York Yankees. Simply put, it's surpassingly easy to hate a team or athlete you can't avoid, and downright impossible to remain indifferent. Not when you're bombarded with the same old faces (Phil Jackson's smirk and/or soul patch), story lines (the Patriots are the ultimate T-E-A-M) and carbon copy magazine covers (Boston Celtics big three! Just look at 'em!). Talk about no exit.
Loathing quotient: High. An inescapable team is akin to a houseguest you can't get rid of -- if you already disliked the team in the first place, the fact that it's soiling your towels, day after day, is going to drive you nuts; even if you're fond of the team, the fact that it's using up all the toothpaste will eventually leave you apoplectic. To put things another way: five years of the Shaq-Kobe Cold War and Jack Nicholson's sideline sunglasses -- not to mention Derek Fisher flopping like a goldfish on the sidewalk and Rick Fox's neo-swashbuckler mien -- was enough to send anyone running through a ski resort hedge maze, axe in hand, quoting Ed McMahon and looking for Mark Madsen. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Classic examples: Notre Dame football, which win or lose is always in the spotlight, thanks to network-cum-house-organ NBC; the Lakers, who even in the era of Kwame Brown have a tighter grip on national television and the holidays than "A Christmas Story."
New England's pursuit of perfection has been the story of the NFL season, and thus of sports coverage and conversation at large; Brady's extracurricular forays into supermodel-dating, goat-nuzzling and general shirtlessness have rendered retreat into the tabloid racks futile.
Annoying attribute: It's one thing to hate a team for winning. It's another thing to hate a team for winning via getting over. Detestable clubs often provoke a sense that their gains and victories are somehow ill-gotten and dishonest -- whether it's by actual cheating (New England's spy scandal), perceived cheating (it sure looked like Michael Jordan pushed off on Bryon Russell) or perfectly legal habit that just feels unfair (the Yankees and the Red Sox outspending everyone else by an approximate factor of 5,892).
Loathing quotient: Stratospheric. Nothing in sports is more contemptible than base skullduggery -- in part because it violates the principles of integrity, honesty and fair play that form the basis of both athletics and society as a whole, in part because it makes you wonder: Why didn't my team think of that first? Morons.
Classic examples: Every athlete ever busted for -- or suspected of --performance-enhancing drug use; the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, whose ref-aided playoff victory over Sacramento prompted an angry letter from consumer advocate and presidential spoiler Ralph Nader; Jeffrey Maier.
Objectively speaking, New England's sideline video shenanigans probably didn't give it much of a competitive advantage; subjectively speaking, who cares? In the court of public opinion, it's tainted titles, tarnished crown, guilty, guilty, guilty! (Also: Rodney Harrison = HGH cheat. Just sayin').
Annoying attribute: Time for some math. To determine a team's jackass factor -- that is, the extent to which a squad's personalities are utterly abhorrent, and make you want to flip to, say, the Food Network -- simple use the following equation:
(People you wish would go permanently mute, and/or be abducted by South American guerillas) * 2 + (People you would like to see punched in the face) * 2 = JFactor
Note that the jackass factor is not entirely limited to players, coaches and team executives who are, in fact, jackasses. Slick, polished individuals who say all the right things and are otherwise inoffensive also qualify. Usually due to a surplus of the preceding qualities (see Battier, Shane, the Duke years).
Loathing quotient: Very high. When it comes to rooting, the name on the back of the jersey matters just as much as the name on the front. To wit: only a hopeless cur would harbor a personality-based vendetta against the low-key San Antonio Spurs -- do Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich inspire anything save somnolence? On the other hand, detesting the Dallas Cowboys of Jerry Jones, Barry Switzer and Deion Sanders was practically a matter of civic duty.
Classic examples: The Bobby Bonilla/Vince Coleman vintage New York Mets; any Charlotte-based franchise owned by George Shinn; the Steinbrenner Dynasty Yankees; any team featuring Terrell Owens, Curt Schilling or Christian Laettner; any team coached by Bob Knight. In addition, any club featuring the Fridge is wholly immune.
Belichick's surly, monotone act is oddly amusing (trust us: you'll miss it when it's gone). The once-sulky Randy Moss has been quiet, even charming since donning the silver and blue. And the rest of the Pats come off as decent, businesslike pros -- even as Brady experiments with postgame ascots and newsboy caps.
Annoying attribute: They're loud and obnoxious, illogical and biased, convinced it's always their year, that their favorite team can do no wrong, that every setback is the tragic result of a cosmic conspiracy. And that's before they've had too much to drink. Still, none of that makes irksome fans unique (everyone feels that way). What makes them singularly irritating is that they sincerely believe all of the above makes them special -- that they're better fans than everyone else. Annoying fans take pride in the mere act of rooting, as if it requires something greater and more admirable than a giant foam finger and a functioning larynx.
Loathing quotient: Moderate to high, depending on the circumstances (unless you're a masochist, avoid Internet message boards, sports talk radio and adjacent airplane seats). In addition, consider how many ire-provoking bandwagon fans a team attracts. It's not Los Angelenos who make Lakers fans infuriating; it's people from Baltimore who ride and die with Kobe Bryant. Please.
Classic examples: Any fans who refer to themselves as a nation, despite a lack of formal UN recognition; any fans who call their club "America's Team"; residents of the greater New York metropolitan area; people who fetishize the Chicago Cubs' losing legacy; the Cameron Crazies, who can't even muster a good taunt without a cheat sheet and committee preapproval; Tomahawk choppers not cheering Florida State.
Despite a half-decade of dominance, New England has yet to attract a Lakers/Cowboys/Steelers-sized legion of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. Moreover, although most Pats fans also root for the Red Sox, the cancerous nettlesomeness of the latter hasn't metastasized in the former. At least not yet.
J'ne se quoi
Annoying attribute: A team's collective personality, loosely defined. Is it mouthy? Constantly whining about the refs? Obsessed with perceived disrespect? A bunch of boring, company-line cliche-spouters? Also weigh style of play: Is a club joyful, fun and free-flowing, or drab, dull and grinding? Even the way a team was built can be galling; in baseball, for instance, a team constructed via free agent signings (read: looting other clubs for high-priced mercenaries) is more hateable than a club built through shrewd trades and minor league development (even though all pro athletes are essentially high-priced mercenaries).
Loathing quotient: Varies, because j'ne se quoi is a polarizing, love-or-hate thing. Take 1990 NCAA finalists Duke and UNLV -- should you loathe the Runnin' Rebels for their rule-skirting, hot-tubbing-with-fixers rep? Or detest the Blue Devils for their too-perfect, armed-for-life schoolboy sanctimony?
Classic examples: The mid-1980s-early-1990s Miami Hurricanes, whose roguish penchant for penalty flags, military fatigues and Luther Campbell helped prompt a famous Sports Illustrated cover demanding the school to dump football; Pat Riley's "force basketball" New York Knicks, who made the NBA less watchable than "Emeril!" the sitcom.
New England's tiresome prove-the-doubters-wrong mantra was more pronounced in previous seasons; say what you want about running up the score, but this year's Pats are an aesthetically pleasing, passing and scoring machine -- far removed from the days of Brady throwing 40 five-yard slip-screen and check-down passes per game. Thank goodness.
Shock and Awe
Annoying attribute: If the team in question demanded your schoolyard lunch money, would you put up a fight? Or would you hand it over, offer thanks and give yourself a wedgie, hoping to avoid additional humiliation and punishment? Some teams find a way to win; others force opponents to kneel before Zod, then crush them underfoot while giggling to the lamentations of their women. And everyone hates a bully.
Loathing quotient: High. Sports fandom is all about hope, about possibility trumping probability -- David thrashing Goliath, Appalachian State upending Michigan -- and clubs that reduce contests to seeming fait accomplis suck the fun right out of rooting. Why watch the game if you already know the final score?
Classic examples: "Punch-Out!"-era Mike Tyson (technically speaking not a team, but wreaked havoc like a one-man gang); the '85 Chicago Bears; the '89 San Francisco 49ers.
Brady and Co. have a plus-312 point differential this season and are on the verge of setting all sorts of single-season offensive records; club handled defending champ Indianapolis on the road and pummeled would-be contender San Diego like an overstuffed piñata; narrow, Houdini-like victory over Baltimore in horrendous weather only makes New England more detestable -- the Pats are good enough to turn in a clunker and still rip your heart out, "Temple of Doom"-style.
Annoying attribute: A team that exhibits all the qualities you wish your favorite team had -- from talent to coaching to cool uniforms. Also, the team wins. Constantly.
Loathing quotient: Very high. Few emotions are more irksome. Envy has been described as "the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own"; when you're a Buffalo Bills fan preparing for another beatdown at the hands of New England, there's exceedingly little art involved.
Classic examples: UCLA basketball during the Wooden years; the '80s Lakers and Celtics; Notre Dame in the good 'ol days; the '90s Bulls.
Dimpled coverboy quarterback, scheme-genius coach, supportive, non-meddlesome ownership, smart and sane front office, players who produce and mostly stay out of trouble -- New England pretty much has it all, save an incredibly lame-looking mascot (who still manages to outclass Steely McBeam). And the only thing worse than hating the Pats is having to grudgingly respect them. Ugh.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Patrick here.