Next to prop bets, a leading topic of pre-game discussion at your Super Bowl party this afternoon will be who’s on the wagon.
Not that wagon. There’s no national spotlight on who pounds down the most Pabst Blue Ribbon before the commercials get expensive. We all know that guy. He’s the one who will be loudly, profanely criticizing Allie Sherman’s play calling by the middle of the second quarter.
I mean the bandwagon, upon which a growing segment of America believes that you — if you’re a New England Patriots fan — have bought and paid for your seat within the last decade.
The murmuring has been audible for years. But the naysayers’ conviction never reverberated more loudly than this week, when I was compelled (forced?) to interview a cluster of geographically challenged, time-tested New York Giants fans.
Good people, all. More than one of them, however, spoke openly about the belief that you and I and the demographic with which we identify is diluted by fair-weather fans.
Now, you need to understand something about Giants groupies. They’re legit. Their passion seems to be a generational curse, bequeathed from father to son and daughter to grandchildren.
It’s acquired differently than other forms of sports fandom, and it’s accompanied by at least a mild superiority complex. I don’t really know why. It just is. I don’t feel that makes it more or less legitimate than the choice to become a fan of any other team in the National Football League.
Giants fans remind me of Original Six hockey fans. They feel like they were here first. Regardless of which team you choose as the hitching post for your wagon, you were just a little bit late to the party.
Which leads us to the Boston/Bay State/New England Patriots, established 1960. You are hard-pressed to find another entity in the sports or even business world that made such a seamless transition from stinking out loud to being a seminal franchise.
That franchise happens to be headquartered in the northeast, a region whose personality type in good times and bad is — admit it, folks — borderline insufferable.
We complain loudest when our teams struggle and squawk obnoxiously when they’re on top. It’s a distinct culture clash with the even-keel backers of Big Blue. Hence, the bandwagon accusations.
The hypothesis raises some valid points, but I don’t buy the conclusion. The Patriots bandwagon is no more crowded than, say, the 49ers bandwagon of the 1980s, the Bulls bandwagon of the 1990s or the Yankees and Red Sox bandwagons of the 2000s.
Some people get their officially licensed boxers twisted over this and experience the gnawing need to somehow prove their fidelity.
I know a guy who launched a Facebook page that challenged fans to post the oldest picture of themselves rocking their team’s gear. He’s a Packers fan who wanted to answer the challenge that he was a new convert. And yes, I think there was an unspoken goal of calling out paper Patriots fans in the same manner.
None of it gets to me. No need to validate myself. I’m part of the gang that has lived and died with the team since Hog and Sugar Bear were baby zoo animals.
We know the most faithful in our midst. We recognize that their legitimacy isn’t defined by a profile picture or a $199 jersey. We understand that no matter which team you embrace, having the biggest collection of souvenirs may simply mean having the smallest credit rating.
The realest of the real know that Vagas Ferguson’s name wasn’t spelled like Las Vegas. That Stephen Starring is pronounced STEFF-en, not STE-ven. That a guy named Bob Bleier was our starting quarterback for the first replacement game in 1987, and that he probably was no worse than Jeff Carlson or Scott Secules, both of whom appeared in real games for us five years later.
But see, even spouting off trivia doesn’t make me more of a real fan than a guy who recently dropped off his Joe Montana, Bretf Favre and Troy Aikman jerseys at Goodwill. It might just mean that I’m Rain Man’s long-lost twin.
Why all this worry about who’s the genuine article and who’s a fraud? It’s just another product of the argumentative, self-absorbed time in which we live.
Owning at least secondary residence on a bandwagon is, after all, human nature.
Think about that family Christmas letter you send to the city cousins every year. Do your updates include losing your job, Joey getting his girlfriend pregnant or Jane getting a ‘D’ in pre-calculus? No, they do not. Heck, last year maybe you simply sent the dollar-store card with the creepy looking snowman instead.
It’s no different with your team, whether it’s the Patriots or the Panthers. Rocking the matching hat, jersey, wind pants and socks to the supermarket when your team is 3-10 in mid-December doesn’t make you a bigger fan. It makes you look ridiculous.
I’m proud to say that most Patriots fans of all commitment levels realize that. So if we didn’t defend Tom Ramsey’s, um, greatness in 1990 the same way we trumpet Tom Brady’s otherworldly skills in 2012, maybe it’s due to a high concentration of common sense rather than a shortage of sincerity.
The best news: Today’s event is one of the few that still brings a majority of Americans together, regardless of our rooting interests or motivation.
I’ll drink to that.
— Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.