This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper
Eliot’s canonical final stanza in his poem “The Hollow Men” echoed through my hollow noggin during the final moments of Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII. I was not alone. Immediately following the game, Los Angeles Rams offensive-linemen and human mountain Andrew Whitworth responded to a question in similarly philosophical terms: “You’re not going to get me to pout and feel sorry for myself…At the end of the day, we’re all gonna die…And who you are, how you carry yourself…is the only thing that’s going to matter. Because that’s what people are going to remember about you” (Twitter, [at]robertmays, 02.05.2019).
I think that Whitworth’s response fits well within the broader context of the game itself, because his response coheres with Eliot’s ever-relevant poem. Further, his response fits with the three existentially-angsty robot commercials released by Michelob Ultra, Pringles and TurboTax. It fits with Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post ad built to embolden the Post’s new “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan.
It fits with the tenor of the game more generally, as well. Indeed, in the highest-scoring season in NFL history, the final game was decided by a duel between two defensive masterminds, Wade Phillips and Bill Belichick, who have been in the league a combined 87 years. The offenses whimpered.
More than anything, Super Bowl LIII was a game defined by entropy. So when the clock hit zero, and confetti poured blandly down from the roof of Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, it felt like there was nothing worth celebrating. Because there wasn’t. Because on the biggest stages, there rarely is.
By now, you may know that the New England Patriots beat the Rams, 13-3. You may know that this is the sixth championship the Patriots have won in the past 18 years. You may know that Tom Brady and Belichick have cemented their status as the greatest player-coach combination in the history of sports.
If you see yourself as a politically conscious liberal, you hopefully also know that the NFL is a morally indefensible entity, that Belichick has been outspoken in his support of Donald Trump and that the Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft went from praising the White House to dancing with Cardi B in the span of 24 hours this past week.
But parsing the problematic nature of the Patriots to justify rooting for the Not-Patriots is, at its heart, silly. Of course, I understand the attraction of rooting against the team that Barstool Sports’ neanderthals root for, and I understand rooting against Boston sports more generally. Indeed, if you read my column last semester, “As Red Sox win Series, remember race and the Yawkey Way,” then you’d know my thoughts on Boston’s extraordinary history of racism. For the sake of cogency, I’ll reproduce one particularly astounding statistic here, from the author Matthew Stewart: “A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo” (The Atlantic, “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy,” 06.2018).
But throwing your support behind the Los Angeles Rams, a team owned by Stan Kroenke—the husband of Walmart heiress Ann Walton and a contributor of $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee— seems as politically backwards as anything else. Alas, the only politically responsible way to root for an NFL team is to not root for an NFL team.
Despite the fact that an increasing number of courageous individuals have begun to publically boycott the NFL, it is still the most popular sports league in the United States by all measures. And even though ratings for this Super Bowl were at their lowest since 2009, it is hard to attribute much of that to the impact of a Kaepernick-inspired protest of all things NFL. The sport is just too popular.
But at some point down the road, it won’t be. And at some point down the road, the Patriots will no longer rule the NFL like a sports version of Cersei Lannister. Their reign will end because, as Andrew Whitworth and T.S. Eliot both knew, everything ends as unceremoniously as it begins. And I think that there is both hope and darkness to be taken from this vision of reality. Excuse the pedantic philosophical nature of the following paragraphs…
The hope brought by an awareness of entropy comes when we can look at terrible things—terrible systems, the terrible ideas from which they grow, and the terrible consequences of their supremacy—and know that they will never stay the same. The same reason that anything beautiful brings a certain sadness can also justify optimism regarding actionable, system-shifting ideals. With a cognizance of the very necessity of change, we can know of the never-ending potential for growth and progress.
The darkness in an awareness of entropy comes from the fact that the victory of progress is as likely as the reinvention of injustice. It is hard here not to think of Colin Kaepernick, a Black man socially persecuted and barred from his profession for the simple reason of being Black and challenging the invidious status quo.
In this way, Kaepernick’s expulsion is just another example of the means by which post-apartheid America continues to silence Black voices. As the formative intellectual Derrick Bell wrote, “‘We have made progress in everything, yet nothing has changed.’ Despite the racial progress we have made in this nation, the Black Body continues to be used as a valued commodity to generate revenue for capitalist endeavors” (Derrick Bell, “And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice,” 1987).
The ability of oppressive powers to adapt to the ever-changing nature of any society has been the defining characteristic in America’s long search for justice. The ability of the New England Patriots to adapt to the ever-changing nature of football is the defining characteristic of their dynastic success.
To disrupt the supremacy of both deleterious systems of oppression and the dominant success of the New England Patriots, structural change is necessary. Without structural change, retrenchment is inevitable. 2020, here we come (I’m talking about Super Bowl LIV, of course).