Brady V NFL: Tribalism Unwrapped by Julian Reed

By Julian Reed

Two weeks ago, a Judge ruled the process by which the NFL dolled out a Four game suspension to NFL Quarterback Tom Brady was (in a multitude of ways) unfair and unreasonable.

This ruling negated the four game suspension and allowed for Brady to headline the NFL’s season opener in Foxboro as the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots took on the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Although the ruling is relevant on its own (given the air of scandal surrounding the story, and it’s nearly year long coverage), I look at it from a different perspective. 

Though even a modest bit of reading into the NFL’s case in this matter would lead one to the conclusion that they lacked evidence, precedent and were simply using Brady to “set an example” for past well documented incidents where the league was heavily scrutinized for lenient punishments. 

That ultimately wasn’t my biggest takeaway. My fascination with the case parallels my fascination with sports as a whole. 

More specifically, how often high profile incidents devolve into pure tribalism and an “Us vs. Them” mentality.         

Consuming sports and news, one gets the opportunity to view things through many different prisms. The opinions and feelings of traditional media types, ex players, fans, current players, owners of teams, etc. 

What I found interesting with the Brady case, how many people very distinctly declared a side. Primarily, it involved two camps of people. Brady supporters, consisting of rabid Patriots fans and fans of other teams who were also Brady fans (They technically fall under the category of sympathizers, but we’ll let that part be removed from this discussion for now). The other, a combination of hardliners (Staunch NFL League office supporters) and Brady haters (Name says it all). Think of this conflict as sort of a poor man’s street brawl. 

Take out the actual fighting, and intellectually, this is essentially what this incident (and all incidents) become.

Typically, you declare allegiance emotionally to one of the aforementioned teams, and then proceed to use inflammatory disparaging and crude remarks towards the other factions. You’re yelling from the mountain top that Brady is innocent and an angel (Which if true, could’ve been an incredible meme. Pity.) or, that he’s the scum of the earth and a lying cheat who plays for a cheating organization. 

Amidst this arbitrary back and forth dialogue, keep in mind, no one talks the actual particulars. This highlights the problem culturally.

 Sadly, it all makes too much sense. Why would the masses deal in facts and reality when the grey area fueled by bias and emotion is so much more awesome and fun? There’s no fun and interesting in truth and objectivity often. 

No guy or gal ever won a bar argument with “I think the NFL was brazen in their execution of discipline and investigation, despite the fact that Brady and the Patriots clearly know more than what they’re telling. That’s a moderate opinion, but it doesn’t move the needle quite like “Brady is Satan” or “Roger Goodell is a corporate pawn and corrupt.”

The issue I take with this reality, it undermines actually reaching solutions because at no point is the actual problems of a situation ever even on the table. People tend to focus on blame and scrutiny. This does nothing for me. 

Though I occasionally take amusement in watching the battle for Middle Earth essentially waged on the Internet and television every other week with our lust for scandal, I think it’s mostly a waste of time. My personal feelings about Tom Brady and the New England Patriots nor Roger Goodell and the NFL come into play in my overall opinion of the situation at hand. Unfortunately, it’s a much bigger issue than this.

When I look at every major scandal of the sports world in the past few years, they all follow this tribalism style template. Whether it was the NFL Concussion Lawsuit, NFL/NHL lockouts, MLB steroids cases, Ray Rice domestic violence case, Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, LeBron’s “The Decision”, etc. 

In every instance, the majority of people (fueled by emotion) picked a side and proceeded to equip armor to go to battle for that team. To get specific, there were actually (and still are) Ray Rice supporters. Some Ravens fans, some just men who wanted to advocate that a man should be able to hit a woman. 

As a Ravens fan myself, this sickens me. Team affiliation in my opinion goes out the window (or should) once real world issues surface that have nothing to do with sports. 

From the second I heard about what Ray Rice did to his then Fiancée, it was irrelevant whether or not he played for my team. Was fully a proponent of whatever punishment the team and NFL opted to hand down. Whether that be indefinite suspension, permanent NFL ban, etc. I’m in the very small minority on this, unfortunately.

Most fans embody the definition of tribalism to the point that they defend any action deemed in the best interest of the team, and even sometimes fight and attack fans of other teams at games and on the Internet. This is normalcy in 2015, and widely considered the default connotation for what coincides with the modern fan experience. It’s a mentality of “all in” that you’ll hear mentioned often. For a lot of people, this is an accurate concept. The results it’s produced are scary to say the least. 

Taking out the larger societal ills created when so much of people’s finite attention, emotion, and discretionary income is pumped into a feast or famine business like sports, I fear for the immediate future. More specifically, for the types of celebrities and star athletes we are creating.

Criticism and scrutiny can be a difficult thing to deal with, but they serve an invaluable purpose in all facets of public life. The most effective way to convey what’s acceptable as a culture. 

As sports became a big ticket item in the late 90’s, coupled with the rise of the Internet and celebrity worship, our ethos surrounding professional athletes and how we view and treat them has shifted exponentially. 
Despite the well documented sea of benefits, being a public figure is no easy task. Billions of people now have the power to pull up your salary, address, phone number, wife/husband/kids, etc in about 20 seconds of a Google search. With an extremely intense and shark infested pool of reporters and media outlets trying to get pictures of you and dig up past dirt, most celebrities opt for seclusion. Often, this creates an ecochamber.

Most professional athletes tend to trust a small group of people, consisting of close family and friends, as well as a PR and brand management team, with agents and advisors. This makes it incredibly difficult to be able to convey most messages to them. As a society, when we want to indicate to a pro athlete that a deed they committed was wrong, it’s very difficult today to have that sink in. Of course, you can never know what’s in people’s hearts. 

Despite that, it’s sometimes still important to set a standard that even the most famous and well known of our culture have to adhere to.

After the Ray Rice incident, ideally it would’ve been great if society was in unison in our messaging that domestic violence is intolerable and has no place in the United States of America. And in some ways, we did. But, the timing of everything was botched to say the least. 

It all began with two video tapes of the Rice incident released at different times by infamous news outlet TMZ. The first, released early in 2014 depicted Rice dragging his then unconscious fiancé from the elevator where he struck her in an Atlantic City Casino. The initial video didn’t spurn much public outcry. Rice during this time actually had many supporters. Some of them contested whether or not she began the confrontation and in turn asked through her actions to be knocked out cold (Ridiculous, I know). It wasn’t until the second video was released late in the summer by TMZ that the tanks of outrage stormed down the streets of New York to the NFL offices in search of retribution and answers. 

The second video depicted what actually happened in the elevator. Rice and his fiancé were both drunk and were having an argument. Without warning, and unprovoked, Rice proceeded to punch her in the face, instantly knocking her out. This incident has become the face of domestic violence in America. Despite that, Rice at no point ever saw a jail cell, and got off. That’s not important here though. How this correlates to my broader point, like the Brady case, people picked sides rather than dealing with the issue. If Rice had chosen to be unapologetic and defiant, it would’ve been a lot easier to do so with the army of supporters he had behind him. What if no one supported him? A lot more difficult to be defiant without a built in support cushion. 

Same goes for the Brady case. If it was actually about getting to the bottom of what happened, we could’ve resolved the issue in half the time that it took with Brady being defiant with fanbase backing.

Whether it’s domestic violence, dogfighting, cheating, etc, I believe problems should remain at the forefront of discussions, rather than individuals. Individuals create emotion. Emotion is a deadly weapon in a logic based discussion. 

Inevitably, individuals almost demand by human nature that you decide instantly whether you’re for or against. That easily can muddy a broader discussion because it brings in a bias that largely isn’t there otherwise. 

You might despise cheating, but you’re much less likely to feel any emotion from the mention of it, without a situation or person attached to personalize/humanize it for you. In general, humans need to be able to put a face on things to be able to have empathy. 

Dogfighting post Michael Vick is looked at markedly different. He will forever be the face of it. When the average person thinks of Dogfighting, they think Vick, and an image swirls in their head of his face, and the dogs he contributed to abusing and killing. Naturally, this generates a deep emotional feeling.

As mentioned at the outset, I was never really interested in the Brady V NFL case. It involved a series of highly subjective and questionable events and opinions, bearing little substance. 

Though a staunch advocate of fair play, you can’t punish what you can’t prove. While I acknowledge that the Patriots clearly did something, I also can acknowledge the NFL yet again handled an investigation and punishment process poorly and in turn, where reprimanded and (punishment) negated in court. 

For fans and the public at large, I hope to see more people willing to get to solutions rather than exacerbating problems. Sports can be a wonderful outlet and beautiful entertainment medium. But, like we’re not perfect, they’re not perfect either. 

It’s always important to remind ourselves of that. Hold people and businesses accountable, and uphold fair practice for the sake of all.


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