The Super Bowl Was a Game, Not World War

Trump's Patriots vs. ATL-style democracy? Marky Mark vs. Outkast? To the real Americans in Houston this weekend, politics didn't matter, and Tom Brady was not the president by proxy

By Michael J. Mooney

February 6, 2017

Nothing is safe. Including sports. Especially sports. The thing many people turn to when they want to turn away from worries and stresses and the real drama in the world. Sports are the respite from all that, the grand distraction where the storylines are all self-contained and, until recently, came to us guilt-free. And the Super Bowl is supposed to be the grandest, most American distraction of all. When we stare at the screen together for hours and cheer our gladiators and embrace our consumerism.

This matchup was just too perfect, though. It was a manifestation of all our political differences. On one side, the "America First" team, a franchise that has literally won so much people are tired of it, with the most nationalistic mascot in all of sports and a head coach, owner and quarterback who are all personal friends of President Donald Trump. On the other side, there's the "cool" team, a franchise that's never won a Super Bowl, with one of the only Muslim players in the NFL, from the district of Democratic Congressman John Lewis—one of Trump's most vociferous critics.

In terms of cultures, this was New England's cult of Patagonia coats versus Atlanta's bedazzled T-shirts and dyed red leather jackets. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch versus Outkast. A cast of old, white, powerful men versus a team from the cradle of the civil rights movement, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—so cool that a spontaneous dance party broke out at the airport over the weekend. Even the postseason team mottos seem to echo modern political sentiments. On all official postseason signage and documents, and on giant flags along the Patriots bench, the team printed the words ONE MORE—which might as well be the sentiments of a greedy, petulant tyrant. Meanwhile, the Falcons' motto, RISE UP, sounds remarkably similar to RESIST—especially when recited by Samuel L. Jackson in a video that played throughout the stadium in the first quarter.

Though local support for Atlanta franchises is traditionally tepid, at least one poll showed that 53 percent of Americans were rooting for the Falcons this weekend, compared to only 27 percent for the Patriots. A liberal friend of mine mentioned a few days before the game that he would be rooting against New England more than he had ever rooted against a team. At one point during the game, when the Falcons were ahead, the Wall Street Journal said its predictive modeling suggested Atlanta had a 91.6 percent chance of winning. Donald J. Trump Jr. tweeted out the link with the message, "Where have I seen stats like this before???"

So this was Joe Louis against Max Schmeling. It was Jesse Owens running in the 1936 Olympics right in front of Hitler. A battle between fascism and democracy itself. Right?

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A Patriots fan poses in front of a Falcons fan at Super Bowl 51 in Houston. (Getty Images)

It's Friday night, and I want to see this culture clash for myself. Not just the game, but the people. I want to hang out with fans of both persuasions who came to Houston for the game, and I want to see what they have to say about how the political world writ large sees this game.

Some people are quick to confirm stereotypes. Like the tall, bald white guy high-fiving his way through the bar and lobby of the Sheraton when I first check in. With each stranger he encounters, he insists again that Tom Brady "is the greatest in the world." Except he isn't saying "Tom" or "Brady." He refers to the legendary quarterback only as "Tahm-meh," as in "Tahm-meh is gonna show Goodell! Tahm-meh is gonna shove that trophy right up Goodell's ass!"

A few feet away, though, is another Patriots fan. A soft-spoken, gentle man who says his name is Chai, "like the tea." He is wearing a weathered Patriots cap with the old minuteman logo. Chai tells me he's been a Pats fan for decades, long before they were winners. He moved to Boston 30 years ago from Bangkok.

"Have you ever been to Thailand?" he asks after a minute or two of talking. "You should go. You'd like it."

Four guys from a local Boston TV station are at the bar, too, talking about the equipment they'll need for the next day's shooting. They've been here for nearly a week now, eating most of their meals at the hotel, and though they all like the Patriots in varying degrees, they are ready to go home. What do they think of the fact that people are associating the Patriots with Trump?

"That's so f--king stupid," says the guy at the end. "It's sports. They're athletes. Who really cares?"

"Tahm-meh is gonna show Goodell! Tahm-meh is gonna shove that trophy right up Goodell's ass!"


One of the guys points out that members of the media aren't allowed to film in the locker room unless one of the players is talking. And on the day Brady had the Make America Great Again hat in his locker, the quarterback made a point to talk to the media. And he almost never talks at his locker. He usually prefers to be showered and coiffed, standing behind a podium in the media room.

The guy at the end of the bar explains he is sort of rooting against the Patriots, actually. Not because of the Trump stuff, though. Or the scandals—the Tuck Rule, Spygate, Deflategate.

"I just don't want to have to shoot another victory parade," he says.

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Fans display the American flag and a patriotic spirit at Super Bowl 51 in Houston. (Getty Images)

The lines to get into the (free) NFL Live experience on Saturday morning stretch for hundreds of yards. Inside, there are massive sponsored displays from the likes of Verizon, NASA and the Animal Planet Puppy Bowl. Between these booths and the various concert stages and food trucks, an increasingly dense compaction of humanity grows. More lines for the ticketed events. And a long line to have your photo taken with a digital rendering of the Lombardi Trophy. Fox News has a set there, and anchor Shepard Smith slips through the crowd unabated. There aren't many people gathered nearby, either. Far more people are interested in the Fox NFL Sunday set. Crowds wave and holler at Jimmy Johnson and Terry Bradshaw, and some women scream and swoon at the sight of Michael Strahan.

Fans of both teams buck whatever preconceived expectations I have pretty fast. There are a few Pats fans striding about in hideous red, white and blue New England Patriots business suits. One or two are in Patriots gear and hats or vests that signify they are combat veterans. And some Atlanta fans are decked out in head-to-toe Falcon red, with matching plastic Mardi Gras beads. But there are also the Patriots-themed luchadores. And French-speaking Falcons fans.

Everywhere I go, Patriots fans outnumber Falcons fans. Most of the people here are local. Texans fans. Cowboys fans. Fans of some other random team or no team in particular. Just out to enjoy a warm, sunny afternoon and food from the food trucks.

The food truck area brings the only discernible difference between Falcons fans and Patriots fans. There are an enormous number of Tom Brady jerseys around the truck selling lobster sandwiches—and a few Falcons fans standing nearby looking puzzled and disgusted.

Nearly every street corner has people either preaching or protesting. A small group holds up signs protesting circumcision. A man shouts "Stop cutting baby penis!" Two streets down, two different street preachers yell at each other on megaphones, arguing about an interpretation of something nobody else nearby seems to understand or care about. On one street, a man hands out what look like Patriots trivia cards. One side has questions like: "What year were the New England Patriots founded?" "Who did the Patriots lose to in Super Bowl XXXI?" "Where did Tom Brady fall in the 2000 draft?" The last question is: "What do you & all football players have in common?" The answer: "Death," and a long explanation about Jesus and repenting.

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Tom Brady celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots win the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)

There is zero talk of politics, even at the Fox News booth. There is only one Make America Great Again hat that I see all day. (All weekend, for that matter.) It is worn by a man selling both Falcons and Patriots scarves, both of which are going fast. A teenage white girl—maybe 14—wearing a cardboard Patriots crown printed by the Boston Globe tells the man in a quiet voice, "I like your hat."

"You should give me a tip, then," he says.

At some point, as the sun is going down Saturday, the security team at Discovery Green stops admitting people, capping the crowd before ZZ Top kicks off its set. Taylor Swift plays at a club nearby. And a Taylor Swift impersonator plays at a gay bar called South Beach.

There are more people gathered around the Fox News set now. The crowd can hear Greg Gutfeld, the host of the show broadcasting that hour, explain how Donald Trump is like the Oakland Raiders of the late 1970s. And the Democrats are like winless Buccaneers or Lions. There isn't much reaction. There are two signs in the crowd advertising

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It is a totally different scene at the Sheraton bar on Saturday. A few older, retired couples, fans of both teams that had just flown in that morning. A pair of New England fans discuss the virtues of gallbladder removal with an Atlanta fan. The woman from Atlanta had hers out a few years ago and strongly recommends the procedure. So much so that she breaks out into a Block That Kick-style cheer: "Get It Out! Get It Out! Get It Out!"

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Fans celebrate in a bar in Atlanta during Super Bowl 51. (Getty Images)

The streets of downtown Houston, which are usually relatively dead on the weekends, feel like New York City. Every sidewalk is lit up and crowded. Music pours from bars and from bands playing near the intersections. A New Orleans-style brass band on one street. A reggae band on the next.

At the Dirt Bar, the drinks are (relatively) cheap. There's a skeleton of a horse in the corner and a round, circular bar with the bartenders in the middle. There are plenty of fans of both teams here, too. If they weren't wearing team colors, they'd be impossible to differentiate. One of the bartenders tells me that both team's fans have tipped well and she can't say who has been nicer or better to her. Which, honestly, surprised her, she explains.

"All of the people from up there," she says, her strong Texas twang apparent, "I expected them to all be rude."

The bar at the JW Marriott is full. It's a swanky place not far from the convention center where the NFL is having an awards banquet. Mostly Patriots crowd. White people in button-downs and loafers. One guy has on a vintage Brady Michigan jersey. Tony Siragusa is at a table in the middle of the room, holding court in a crushed velvet jacket and a blue turtleneck. A group of well-dressed men and women seem to be hanging on to every word. A guy with a beard and a man bun—wearing Toms—asks Siragusa to pose for a photo with him, and Siragusa is gracious. Nobody here is talking politics either, and the idea of bringing it up while people are so cheery feels awkward.

Down the street, a sports bar is blasting a Steve Earle song out the front door and an Usher song from the back patio. The bouncer, wearing gloves with hard plastic over the knuckles, announces the cover is $20 to get into the front and $40 to get into the back.

Other bars seem unfazed by Super Bowl weekend. Crowds at Monnalisa in the CityCentre development and Lawless in the Rice Hotel are indistinguishable from the regular weekend patrons. No jerseys or caps or loud mindless chanting. Just quiet people sipping expensive cocktails.

At another bar called notsuoH (Houston backwards), I stumble upon two men playing chess next to the bar. The walls are filled with art, including a display of a dozen or so women's pumps attached to the wall in concentric rings. The men, it turns out, are brothers from Atlanta. One is five years older than the other and lives in Seattle now, where he's an executive at Amazon. The younger brother works in landscaping.

Fans celebrate in a sports bar in Boston after the Patriots win Super Bowl 51. (Getty Images)

"He's got 80 IQ points on me," the younger brother says as he ponders his next move. It's a bad one, it turns out, and he loses his queen. He is in checkmate not long after.

The older brother, in his early 30s, goes on about his lifelong love of Atlanta sports. He gives me a short seminar on the history of Goodie Mob and how CeeLo Green is a terrible person and the proper "A" hand-sign techniques. ("You need to drop your thumb in there so there's a little window. It's not like, 'Oh, I got your nose,' though. It's just a little window.") He was at the game when the Braves won their only World Series.

"That's why I wanted us to be here for this," he tells me.

He told his younger brother he'd buy the tickets, which cost him thousands of dollars—"He makes a shit-ton more money than I do," the younger brother explains—but the younger brother would have to pay for his own flight to Texas.

A vape pen full of weed is passed around and the brothers begin to get emotional. They live very different lives at this point. The older brother is rich and successful, casually referencing subjects like game theory and his desire to "make the world a better place for people to live." He knows, by memory, what percentage of the Major League Baseball season comprises interleague play. The younger one has stories about tricking people into eating edible pot snacks. Now, though, they are relishing the chance to be together for the game. And the overlaid politics mean nothing to them.

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President Donald Trumps watches Super Bowl 51 with first lady Melania Trump at Trump International Golf Club in Palm Beach, Florida.(AP Images)

I visit with fans of both teams tailgating in the parking lot, and at the organized parties. A husband and wife from Cobb County, in the suburbs of Atlanta. They're Trump supporters, they tell me.

"I'm glad he's making us safer," the wife says. "Can you imagine how happy a terrorist would be if he got a shot at the game today?"

A father and son in Brady and Edelman jerseys. The father tells me that he and his wife are liberals. They voted for Hillary Clinton, and he says gun laws are one of the main reasons. His concept of safety. When I mention the Patriots' connections to Trump, the man shakes his head.

"Brady is just friends with him," he says. "I don't think Brady even voted in the election."

Walking around, you can probably make a few safe bets. Most of the young men with unkempt beards are Falcons fans. Most of the men in denim shorts or military regalia are Patriots fans. Most of the Patriots fans are white, but not all of them. And most of the Falcons fans aren't—but a lot of them are.

Early on, I realize my premise is faulty. Or silly. Seeing people gawk and gather, seeing what they'll spend money on, what they’ll tell a stranger about their lives and their beliefs, it reminds me that as divided and tribal as our country feels, there's more that binds us. I realize this game highlights more of what we have in common than what we don't. Our mutual affinity for monetized gladiatorial distraction. Our desire to party when we have the excuse.

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Cicily Mitchell wipes away a tear at a sports bar in Atlanta after the Falcons lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)

I think about how heartbroken the brothers from Atlanta must be. How elated that boy and his father probably are. How annoyed that TV news crew will be covering the Patriots victory parade.

We love sports precisely because the outcome doesn't matter. This game was an extended metaphor for politics only in the way that every game is a metaphor for something else. Our adopted tribes, where the battles are all symbolic. When Atlanta took a 28-3 lead, I saw Patriots fans heading for the exits looking dismayed. Like their tribe had just been crushed. I saw Falcons fans looking the same way a few hours later. We invest the emotion and energy, but we understand that a win or a loss doesn't change our lives any more than we let it. The tribalism itself is one of those things we have in common with one another. That’s precisely the appeal of football. It's not a world war. It's a game. Most of us remember that most of the time.

Of course, before the game was even over, there was a photo going around Twitter with Hillary Clinton's head superimposed on Matt Ryan's body.

Michael J. Mooney is a contributing writer for B/R Mag and a New York Times best-selling author who also writes for ESPN The Magazine, Rolling Stone, GQ, Outside, Texas Monthly, SUCCESS and Popular Mechanics. His stories have appeared in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting. He is the co-director of the annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and lives in Dallas with his wife, Tara.

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