Last week I wrote a piece called “The Progressive Case for the New England Patriots (Seriously).” It was an argument that even if you despise the defending Super Bowl Champs, they aren’t some kind of “Team Trump” stalking horse and the people who love them shouldn’t feel guilty about it… or at least they shouldn’t feel any guiltier than anyone else who consumes the National Football League. I also wrote that it’s foolish—except in extraordinary circumstances—to paint a team with political colors, as if it assists people fighting for social change if one set of laundry emerges triumphant. Hate the Patriots—and I do—if you must, but it’s weak sauce to paint that hatred with political colors.
For me, if the Patriots are like migraine that won’t go away, their Super Bowl opponents are more like a mosquito that never stops buzzing in your ear: the Philadelphia Eagles. My dislike for the Eagles is entirely irrational. Just as the Patriots are nettlesome for their 15 years of dominance, the Eagles have been almost if not equally aggravating over my entire life because they have never won a Super Bowl and their fan base cannot stop whining about it. Yet—again as with the Patriots—Eagles haters take this to an extreme and describe the fan base as something close to feral. They point to a well-worn history that involve the Eagles fans booing Santa Claus, mocking the neck injuries of opposing players, having a court of law under the stadium to quickly adjudicate drunken brawlers, and this past Sunday, throwing full cans of beer at people wearing Vikings gear. But while Eagles fans take the heat for being a particularly virulent strain of asshole, there are few NFL stadiums that anyone would describe as wholesome environments. Attendance isn’t low because of player protest. It’s low because most stadiums are places where middle-class fans in $300 seats role-play their twisted conception of working-class people, get liquored up, fight, and then ice their bruises and put on a tie for their Monday office jobs.
I’ve been to many NFL stadiums, and except for Miami, where no one really cares, and Seattle and Denver, where a gentle haze of legal weed floats above the tailgating, there is nowhere anyone would describe as “chill.” So leave the Philly fans alone.
The city is also a complicated, contradictory place to cheer: It’s the city of racist Mayor Frank Rizzo and the MOVE bombing under Mayor Wilson Goode. It’s the city that made a statue of fictional white boxer Rocky Balboa instead of the black boxer from Philly from whom so much of Sylvester Stallone’s creation was appropriated, Joe Frazier. It’s the city where you can buy a right-wing cheesesteak at the “English-Only” Geno’s, and bray for the execution of onetime Philly journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. But it’s also a city where as of 2015, a Frazier statue now exists. It’s the city of powerful anti-Nazi demonstrations and where DA Larry Krasner was elected this past year, with heightened expectations that he would use his post to advocate against mass incarceration and for social justice. It’s a city of resistance in the time of Trump, and old Philly stereotypes need not apply.
This is also a city that has also spent the season rooting for a group of players who have been especially socially conscious in 2017. It is the team of star safety Malcolm Jenkins, who spent most of this past year raising his fist during the anthem and forming the Players Coalition to negotiate with NFL owners to financially support causes fighting for racial equality. Even if one disagrees with the strategies of the Players Coalition, thinking it was too quick to compromise the player protests, this was an extraordinary way for Jenkins to spend his season, while leading this team to the number-one seed in the NFC.
This is the team of Chris Long, who after playing for the Patriots last year, refused on political grounds to go to the White House. He then went to Philly and became publicly political after Nazis held their deadly march in his hometown of Charlottesville. Long donated his game checks to local scholarships and said in a statement, “In August, we watched people fill our hometown streets with hatred and bigotry. Megan [Long’s wife] and I decided to try to combat those actions with our own positive investment in our community. We want these scholarships to be reflective of what the ‘Cville’ community is really about—supporting one another, social equality and building up those in our community who need it. We hope our investment will change the lives of the students who receive the scholarship and in turn, those students can positively impact others.”
Long also spent the season, putting his hand on Malcolm Jenkins’s shoulder, as Jenkins raised his fist during the anthem, creating an iconic image of solidarity that will stand the test of time.
At the end of the season, fans started calling him the anti–Colin Kaepernick, the argument being that Long unites people while Kaep divides them. Long fiercely called that bullshit out. One tweet was, “ZERO interest in being used as the anti-Colin. I support Colin’s right to protest, and what he’s protesting. He deserves a job in the NFL. He’s donated as much $ as I have to social cause.” (People should read the whole thread.)
Long is joined on the team by another former Patriot, running back LeGarrette Blount, the great nephew of jazz-music legend Sun Ra (seriously). If the Eagles win the Super Bowl, Long and Blount could make history by becoming the first players to shun the White House in consecutive years while playing for different teams.
Then there are players like Rodney McLeod, Torry Smith, Marcus Johnson… the list of the conscious players and their stories is more book than article. This collective consciousness was seen with bracing clarity after Donald Trump cursed these players in Huntsville, Alabama, saying they should be forced to stand for the anthem or be fired; this team linked arms, with several players raising their fists. Team owner Jeffrey Lurie also linked arms with the players, and while I’m no fan of owner protest when they won’t even give Kaepernick a tryout, credit to Lurie for issuing one of the best statements of support, saying in part, “Every day I see the genuine dedication and hard work of our players. And I support them as they take their courage, character, and commitment into our communities to make them better or to call attention to injustice.” The fans did not boo these guys but cheered.
This team’s success amid the political maelstrom of the last year is a statement unto itself. As Chris Long said during a Super Bowl media scrum, that people on this team, as sportswriter Michael David Smith tweeted, “have proven that getting involved in political causes off the field isn’t a distraction from success on the field.”
Nowhere is this synthesis of success and social conscious personified more clearly than in a single tweet sent last month by injured second-year star quarterback Carson Wentz. When Wentz came into the league out of North Dakota State, all we knew about him was that he was a God-fearing young man who loved to hunt. He presented himself to the world as almost a caricature of the Norman Rockwell All-American quarterback: the small-town man’s man who’s either throwing passes or exercising his Second Amendment rights. Yet when Trump made his comments about Haiti being a “shithole country,” Wentz immediately went on the offensive and spoke about his own visits to Haiti with former teammate—and Kaepernick supporter—Jordan Matthews. As Trump’s words were in their first echo, Wentz tweeted, “Much love for the people of Haiti! They’ve been thru so much but it was incredible to see so much hope in them—even tho they’ve been stricken by so many natural disasters. Definitely changed [Jordan Matthews] and I forever!” It was a direct rebuke of the racist in chief Wentz’s public transformation is a credit to not only him but the culture in the Eagles locker room.
Don’t buy the narrative that the Patriots are Team Trump and the Eagles are Team Fans From Hell. It’s not how sports works. Both organizations contain multitudes. But if you are at a Super Bowl party and think that the Patriots are toxic, arrogant, entitled, and, like their owner and coach’s buddy Donald Trump, cheated to get to the top, the Eagles are a team for you. As for my own rooting interests, I’ll take a mosquito over a migraine any day. Philly 24, Patriots 21.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly asserted that there was no curse that Philly fans ascribe to the failure of all their sports teams to find championship success, but the Curse of Billy Penn is in fact one possible explanation.