They once were America’s red-white-and-blue heroes, the lovable underdogs who served up a feel-good story after the trauma of 9/11. “At this time in our country we are all Patriots and tonight the Patriots are champions,” owner Robert Kraft declared in February 2002 as he accepted the championship trophy after the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.
Three rings and two scandals later, the Patriots have been labeled cheaters and Tom Brady’s All-American-boy image has been tarnished after a National Football League investigation concluded it was more probable than not the quarterback knew he was throwing footballs that deliberately had been softened. A New York Daily News cartoon lampooned Brady as Pinocchio, sitting amid shrunken pigskins: “Big Nose, Small Balls.”
For most of the country outside of New England, the harsh penalty handed down by the league — a $1 million fine, the loss of two draft picks, and Brady’s suspension for next season’s first four games — was greeted with delight by fans who believed that the club had been out of bounds for years.
“Deflategate is a pointed attempt to deflate the dynasty,” observed Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “The Patriots have become the New York Yankees of the NFL. The Evil Empire.”
The Brady Bunch is the latest in a lengthy line of super-successful teams and individuals whose demise was widely celebrated, among them the Yankees, Cowboys, Celtics, Manchester United’s soccer club, the Soviet Union’s hockey team, and cyclist Lance Armstrong.
“The almost universal disdain for the Patriots and Tom Brady has its roots in a general phenomenon of popular people and entities who elicit either jealousy or hatred,” said Harvard Business School professor emeritus Stephen A. Greyser, a sports business expert.
By definition, sports dynasties create resentment from fans of rival teams who may go generations without champagne and confetti.
“It’s not that they dislike the success so much as that success in a zero-sum game necessarily means you have more people rooting for you to fail,” said Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.”
The Yankees’ dynasty endured for decades. From 1923-62, they won the World Series 20 times.
“Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel,” comedian Joe E. Lewis cracked.
What irked Yankee haters most was the club’s pinstriped arrogance, with the front office perennially counting a winning Series share as part of player salaries.
“Every year is next year for the New York Yankees,” sportswriter Roger Kahn typed in 1952 after they’d beaten the Dodgers for their fourth straight crown.
The Celtics, who won 11 NBA titles from 1957-69, were wreathed in smoke from coach Red Auerbach’s victory cigars, which he ostentatiously ignited when he felt triumph was secure. When Boston finally lost a seventh game, to the 76ers in 1977, a Philadelphia fan danced in front of legendary Celtics announcer Johnny Most, puffing a gigantic stogie. “How do you like it, Johnny?” he shouted, mocking Most’s raspy voice. “Huh? How do you like it?”
Manchester United, which calls its Old Trafford stadium the “Theatre of Dreams,” claimed 13 English Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and two UEFA Champions League crowns from 1993-2013, including the “Treble” in 1999.
When the Red Devils sagged to a worst-ever seventh last year and failed to qualify for continental competition for the first time since 1990, tiny Welsh club Aberystwyth Town tweaked them on Twitter: “Hey Man U, we are all off to Europe . . . Are you???”
“Dynasties can create ennui,” remarked Greyser. “They may also in some instances generate distaste or disaffection.”
Not all sports dynasties have had multitudes praying for a pratfall.
The Green Bay Packers, who claimed five NFL titles from 1961-67, including the first two Super Bowls, were considered the country’s hometown franchise, a group of model professionals who won because of discipline and dedication.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who collected four rings from 1975-80, represented hard-hat America, a blue-collar group that got its hands dirty.
“The Rooneys bought the franchise in the ’30s and they grew up on the North Side within walking distance of the stadium,” said Jeff McMurdy, a Pittsburgh native who is executive director of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. “It was a typical family team from a small town. That feeling exists today only because the Rooneys still own the team.”
The San Francisco 49ers, who collected four championships from 1982-90, were regarded as an enthralling team coached by a visionary.
“Bill Walsh was such an innovator,” said Boston University associate professor Thomas Whalen, the author of books on the Celtics and Red Sox dynasties. “He invented the West Coast offense that revolutionized the game.”
All of those dynasties, though, reigned before the Internet and the endless spin cycle of cable television and social media.
“It’s the constant celebrity platform,” said Lebowitz. “The viral and virtual nature of news.”
The always-on recorder is inescapable for wealthy superstars who walk a high-wire between adoration and vilification.
“What’s the worst thing LeBron James ever did? Say he was moving to South Beach?” said Lebowitz. “He’s been under a microscope since fourth grade and he’s done an amazing job in the spotlight.”
Brady, who began his career as the ungainly kid that nobody wanted, evolved into a marquee idol with a multimillion-dollar contract, lucrative endorsements, a supermodel wife, and a jet-set lifestyle, zipping from the Kentucky Derby to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas in a private plane.
“He’s no longer the underdog, no longer the golden boy,” said John Matthew Smith, a Georgia Tech sports historian. “He’s the boy with all the advantages.”
What Brady wasn’t considered until recently was a breaker of rules, unlike the team he plays for.
“Ever since Spygate, fans from outside New England have looked at Bill Belichick and the Patriots with suspicion,” said Smith. “They’re always looking for an advantage, not only bending the rules but breaking the rules.”
Even if the Patriots scrupulously played by the book, it’s likely the rest of the country would have grown weary of seeing Flying Elvis in its living room. After UCLA had won a record seven consecutive NCAA titles and run up a winning streak that would reach 88 games, basketball fans beyond Westwood yawned whenever they saw grandfatherly coach John Wooden on the bench with his rolled-up program.
“Going into 1974 there were columnists who said that there were other coaches who were tired of Wooden being held up as a paragon, being on a pedestal,” said Smith, who wrote a book about the UCLA dynasty. “The game had become boring.”
When dynasties such as the Canadiens and Bulls and eternal champions such as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer were brought back to earth, millions of fans were happy to see new faces atop the heap. The difference with the Patriots is that they’re getting their comeuppance while they still hold the crown.
“It’s a great time to pile on because of the image of cheating or quasi-cheating,” said Greyser. “Cheating is Spygate. Quasi-cheating is what the other teams accuse them of because they’re not that smart.”
While skeptics had found it unlikely that Armstrong, a cancer survivor, could pull off a record seven straight Tour de France victories without forbidden pharmaceutical assistance, even his most ardent defenders found it difficult to defend him against a mountain of evidence that ultimately got him banned from the sport for life.
“The evidence gets to be so much that people flip and you saw that with Lance,” said Simons. “At some point evidence does matter and does persuade people.”
While the Deflategate evidence is circumstantial, the club’s history made it plausible.
“The Patriots were seen to be always looking for some kind of edge,” said McMurdy. “Whether it’s with videos or an extra receiver.”
New England fans sporting “They Hate Us ’Cause They Ain’t Us” T-shirts with Pat Patriot on their chests say the vitriol is all about four silver trophies their detractors don’t have.
“It’s pretty normal human behavior to see people and institutions that you dislike fail and suffer,” said Simons.
Few outside of the Bronx mourned when the Yankees sank into last place in 1966. Last week, raining on the Patriots’ duck boat parade was the national pastime.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.