At long last, the NFL’s labyrinthine report on whether or not the New England Patriots intentionally deflated the footballs they used in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts has thudded onto the collective desks of the scandal-famished media. The results do not paint quarterback Tom Brady and company in a favorable light.
Investigator Ted Wells and his team of sleuths have concluded that it is “more probable than not” that Brady “was at least generally aware” of the doctoring of the footballs carried out by two team employees. Text messages exchanged between those employees, Jim McNally and John Jastremski, basically Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts, seem to implicate that Brady was probably, most likely, possibly the shadowy motivating force behind some not entirely implausible and reasonably hypothetical ball chicanery.
Patriots diehards, like myself, remain unpersuaded, now adding a pair of Patriots-brand blinders to our collection of team apparel, while Brady’s camp has doubled down, doing everything short of hand-sketching a picture of the specific kangaroo in charge of the hearing.
All that remains to be determined now is what, if any, disciplinary action the league will levy against Brady. A two-game suspension? Eight? A lifetime ban and retroactive erasing of his entire existence from the history books? After that, there’s the all-important matter of Brady’s “Legacy,” a matter to which, even as one of his biggest fans, I would offer the following determination: Who cares?
“Tom Brady’s Legacy as One of the Best Takes a Hit” headlined the New York Times in its appraisal of the news. The hometown paper’s Dan Shaughnessy said about as much in his column for the Boston Globe. “It stretches all believability to conclude that he had nothing to do with this. And it damages his hard-earned legacy across America,” he wrote.
This being the most important news story of the week, and of many previous weeks before this one, the rest of the media, sports and otherwise, are all likewise concerned about Brady’s place in history books not yet written. “Will ‘deflategate’ allegations impact Tom Brady’s legacy?” asked Fox News. “What has DeflateGate done to Tom Brady’s legacy?” wondered the Score. “Do you think that the Wells Report findings tarnish Tom Brady’s legacy?” prompted ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” show. So, too, wondered Bleacher Report. ESPN’s Skip Bayless knows the answer. “[F]air or not,” he tweeted, “Tom Brady’s legacy has been permanently tainted.”
Countless throngs of Internet commenters have arrived at a similar conclusion, calling for the dreaded Asterisks of Shame to be permanently affixed to Brady and the Patriots’ permanent record, which is going to make it hard for him to get a job someday, just so you know. They might even call his mother.
It makes sense that the likes of Shaughnessy, the Charon-like ferrymen into the Boston sports afterlife, would preoccupy themselves with this question of Legacy, but this all strikes me as such a peculiar way for the average fan to process the enjoyment of sports. Just as we see in the conversation about whether certain baseball players who may or may not have used performance-enhancing drugs should one day be allowed to enter the Hall of Fame, which makes up the bulk of ambient background noise of sports talk radio and comment boards like a perpetually humming fridge full of curdled yogurt, it replaces the contemporaneous enjoyment of the athletic achievement going on around us today for some hypothetical futuristic backwards-gazing. It’s a form of anticipatory nostalgia that obliterates the present in exchange for an imagined retrospective.
We see a similar speculative ledger-balancing at work when it comes to presidents – President Obama’s legacy was being speculated about before he even laced up the presidential cleats for the first time – but at least that’s the type of history that actually matters. Do you walk out of a film that you enjoy and say, “That was nice, but where does it stand in the lengthy catalog of filmmaking achievements?” Hopefully not, because that’s a fragmented, stilted and downright nerdy way to experience the world.
And yet you hear this sort of thing across the board when it comes to the discussions of sports. Instead of apprising the matter at hand, we contrive wormholes into the future so we may gaze upon our contemporaries through the eyes of our decedents. It’s not enough to say Tom Brady played a masterful game against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl; we must instantly jump out to the next degree of temporal observational magnitude. Instead of enjoying a touchdown or a home run as they’re in the offing, there’s a need to contextualize it in the Grand Sports Narrative. “Andrew Luck is a promising young player today,” we think, “but will he go down in the annals of history as an “Elite Quarterback?” You might as well be saying “Sure, that game-winning three-pointer was great and all, but I can’t help but wonder what my great-granddaughter is going to think of it someday.”
The answer is: She’s not going to think of it at all. And why should she? Much like the scandals of the past in football and in other sports, deflategate will erode into a distant memory over time, in part because it’s such a non-issue, but also because they all do. When the broadcast of an NFL game posts a graphic about the winningest teams in Super Bowl history, there’s no mention of the rule-breaking of teams of the past like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, fans of other teams grumble in the dialect of professional grudge-bearers, but there is no Official Historic Document of Sportsmanship Aggrievement being maintained. (And if there were, no one would be on it — the sins of athletes are promptly swept under the rug when the lights come on. See Ray Lewis for evidence of that, or the sudden onset of collective amnesia regarding Jameis Winston.) If an asterisk is affixed to a legacy and no one is there to see it, did it ever happen?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is infamous for his focus on the next task at hand. “We’re onto next week,” he’ll often say when asked about something from a game that’s just transpired. He’s like a shark, constantly moving forward, because to stop is to die. In much the same way, Belichick knows that looking backward is for losers. In sports, it’s all about what’s happening right now, what goal has to be accomplished next. It should be that way for us fans, too. The past is something we can’t control. Neither is the future. We’d do well to let it play out as it comes and stop trying to write it before it gets here.