Football and Factionalism

Parcells Never Asked for the Adulation of Fans

It was recently announced that Bill Parcells was to leave his job as head coach of the New England Patriots. This came as a surprise to nobody, largely because the Boston media has been speculating about Parcells' imminent departure for weeks. Someone not from New York or New England might have had difficulty understanding why so much newsprint has been spent on this issue and why the topic seems to evoke such strong emotions, at least in the hearts of the local sportswriters.

Clearly the disloyalty, perceived or real, of a beloved public figure who had returned New England sporting respectability with a trip to the Super Bowl had something to do with it. (A similar public outcry occurred when Roger Clemens skipped town earlier this winter to go to the Toronto Blue Jays.)

Particularly rankling to local fans was the fact that Parcells was leaving the Patriots to become the coach of the Jets, division rivals of his former team and natives of a city which Bostonians have always viewed with an odd mixture of contempt and envy.

But what makes the strong public reaction to Parcells' departure particularly puzzling to those not involved or interested in the sports world is the fact that this sort of thing seems to happen all the time. In this much-touted era of free agency, the departure of star players (and coaches) from successful teams is an increasingly frequent occurrence.

So why do we still care so much? Clearly it would not have been a big story if Parcells was leaving the Patriots for a job with NBC, or to go into retirement. But this switching of sides, this apparent disregard for the sacred boundaries of sport, strikes at the heart of the public's cherished misconceptions about professional sports.

Sports fans willingly give their loyalty, pay money to attend games and wear odd and undignified clothing proclaiming their undying support for the local team. To cite only the most obvious of innumerable recent examples, the success of the Green Bay Packers this year spawned a national industry devoted entirely to producing styrofoam hats which vaguely resemble pieces of cheese.

One man interviewed this season by The Boston Herald proudly told the reporter that his marriage had fallen apart because he loved the Patriots more than his wife. In light of this massive investment by fans, the fact that the recipient of such loyalty should spurn it and give his own loyalties to another team and other fans seems to the Patriots' faithful to be the rankest ingratitude.

But in fact Parcells is not the one whose behavior would strike an impartial observer as strange. He is simply changing jobs. He did not solicit the rabid loyalty of millions of New England residents, and indeed often seemed alternately bemused and irritated by the constant media attention that his position received. He did not seek to be either saint or quisling. Those labels were given to him by that most fickle of admirers, the American public.

So why are we so eager to pledge our undying allegiance to people who play games for a living? Why such a great investment with, too often, so little return?

The answer, of course, lies in the oft-noted tendency of people to want to divide themselves into factions. These factions are frequently defined by that which they are not. For example, some Red Sox fans may like the current manager, and some may not, but every one of them hates the Yankees with a passion deep and true. The examples of this tendency are too numerous (and too cliched) to note in depth--suffice it to say that this need to define oneself and one's group in terms of an "other" is at the heart of many conflicts in today's (and yesterday's) world, many of them more serious than mere sports rivalry.

Nationalism, whether ethnic or civic, is clearly one of the most powerful of the forces which move societies, and what is nationalism if not factionalism writ large?

The interesting thing is that regional rivalries of this sort can still occur in such seemingly modernized and pluralistic places as New England, one of the more progressive areas in one of the most progressive countries in the world. In reality, modernization has little to do with this kind of factionalism; indeed, some might argue that a cosmopolitan society actually creates a need for rivalries of the Yankees/Sox variety, as an outlet for tendencies which might be exerted less peacefully in a more fragmented society. These regional rivalries are the engine which drives the modern American sports industry.

In all probability, this sort of relatively benign factionalism will be around for quite some time; no matter how peaceful and unified the country seems, there will always be amusing secession movements in Vermont and Texas and the militia party will always hold a respectable minority of the congressional seats in Montana.

And sports fans will always resent athletes and coaches who, like Bill Parcells, faithlessly jump ship to go to other teams.

David M. Weld is a junior living in Eliot House.