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There are a lot of dramas on TV and no matter how the plot zigs and zags you know how most, or maybe all of them, are going to turn out. The only time that’s not true when you’re watching a sporting event – like, say, Super Bowl Fifty-One. Only an incomplete mind, or a terribly deprived one, fails to engage the drama inherent in any game, and the Super Bowl Fifty-One was certainly dramatic.
Aristotle – I’m thinking of the Greek philosopher born in 385 BC, not “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal – had some interesting things to say about the dramas that he and his countrymen saw performed in Greece. The play, Aristotle said, should have one action from start to finish, should occur in one place, and should begin and end in one day.Those happenings on stage, he said, weren’t true actions or events but “imitations of an action.”
Despite this, the spectators, were engaged as if the imitations were actual events – as if the actor on stage were really Oedipus, as if, at the close of the play, he has murdered his father and bedded his mother and now, blood streaming down his face, he has actually put out his own eyes in self-punishment.
Adults have the strange ability to simultaneously know that what they’re witnessing is merely a imitation of an action, and at the same time, says Aristotle, they are moved by genuine pity and terror by what they see. We know what the characters in the drama are scripted to feel, we identify ourselves with them and feel the emotions we’d feel if we were in the little world portrayed on stage. The drama played out in a football game engages us the same way, but it’s greatly heightened by our knowledge that what we witness is not bogus, but is actually happening to the players on the field.
The New England Patriots were favored to win by three points. Most New Englanders identified with the Patriots, of course, but despite the odds, the rest of the United States poured their emotions into the Atlanta Falcons. To put it bluntly, the Patriots had become the team to hate. Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was thirty-nine years old, had already won four Super Bowl games, tying the best performance by any other quarterback in Super Bowl history, but he had also been tainted by a cheating scandal for which he was punished by being sidelined for four games, a staggering penalty. On the other hand, the Falcon’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, at thirty-one, was in charge of a team of comparative youngsters and had just won the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. Ryan was leading an exceptional team, a team with a very bright future — a future that might arrive with this game. Maybe Brady was the past.
The trajectory of Super Bowl LI had a stunningly dramatic arc. Over 111 million viewers watched the game on TV, caught up in the emotion of a championship game that tied and went into overtime, a first in Super Bowl history. It obeyed the unities of time, place and action, but no spectator felt terror for the losing Falcons or Matt Ryan – pity, perhaps, but not terror. Super Bowl LI wasn’t an Aristotelian drama and nobody noticed. They were too caught up in the action, real action, not an imitation.
If you like to keep score, the weekend of January 21 and 22 was exciting. The New England Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23 to 20, the New York Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 20 to 17, and Newt Gingrich defeated Mitt Romey, 40.4 to 27.8.
The big difference between those hard-fought football games and our crappy political primary contests is that in a football game you’re not allowed to bamboozle and lie your way to victory or use wild money from in-your-pocket millionaire contributors to ambush your opponents. On the football field, when you’re seen breaking the rules, you’re penalized by referees who are as objective as God permits humans to be. In politics, anything less than a felony
is considered OK, so long as it hauls in voters.
One of the nice things about football is that the actual running, blocking, grunting players are the winners and losers, depending on how well they do on the field. The spectators — that’s most of us — are on the sidelines, cheering. We get to go home in good health when it’s over. In politics, the politicians play the game but we’re the ones who get banged up, mangled, disabled and sometimes ruined by what they do.
We’ve damn well exhausted this sports/politics metaphor. We apologize and will leave it alone now.
No team has broken more hearts than the Red Sox. Red Sox fans know from decades of bitter experience that no matter how gloriously well the Sox are doing in August, they’ll blow it in September. But this year they did it spectacularly. This year they broke the record for blowing a big lead in the last few weeks of the season. The record had been held by the National League’s Atlanta Braves when by the end of their final game they had blown an 8 1/2 game lead for a wild card spot. The Braves won that record on September 28th of this year. Alas, later that night the American League’s Red Sox succeeded in blowing a 9-game lead and lost their chance for a wild card spot. So the Sox now hold the record for blowing it late in the season. Their fans knew this day would come.