The Paradox of Football: How Sports Reveal Our Contradictory Nature

It’s finally Super Bowl day, and my Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one game away from a moment I thought I’d never see again in my lifetime. On display, we witnessed an ageless quarterback who proved to be just as good as ever and a young team that finally found its way through his persistent guidance. If you know anything about the Bucs, you know how much they suck, rather how much they sucked.

It’s easy to root for them. And it’s easy to root for Tom Brady, whose passion, dedication, and motivation both inspired and instilled confidence in his much younger teammates. But, Brady has a dark side. He’s as inspiring as he is maniacal. In an interview, Brady remarked, “I have the ability to help people… help them be the best they can be.” And, it’s well-known how much time and patience he has for his teammates. But, his willingness to berate them on the sideline when the game isn’t going well isn’t a secret, either.

Former Pro Bowl Tight End Matellus Bennett took to Twitter this past week to share his experiences in the game. He noted the perpetual mental abuse, the fragility of relationships and egos, and the difficulties of life after football. He gave us a glimpse into the darkness that’s seldom seen and always managed. He believed that he would be friends with most of the other members of the team until the end, and bemoaned the fact that he felt as much jealousy as joy for his more successful teammates. The image that he projected represented the complexity of the sport and, inadvertently, of human nature. At once, we are both good and bad, striving, but not always, to be better people.

One can read Bennett’s tweets and wonder how a human being can ever be happy about an injured teammate. But isn’t that life in some sense? Aren’t we all at once competing and cooperating with one another? If an injury means that you’re now starting, what’s more human than feeling sympathy for your teammate and joy for yourself? Even if we don’t want to admit it, we’re all contradictions.

The stories we tell about football and its players betray our ideals and the lives we wish we had, but its reality serves as an example of the ones we have. It’s easy to root for Tom Brady, but it’s just as easy to hate him. You can hate him for his success, his selfishness, or even his sideline blowups. You can idealize his life, wondering why yours isn’t easier. Yet, you might as well hate yourself too. As you idealize Brady, there’s someone out there who idealizes you.

Football, to use Woody Allen’s words, is like anything else: imperfect. Our stories and perspectives are incomplete. We use them for inspiration, but ought to be careful; inspiration can easily devolve into envy and hate. Martellus Bennett’s tweets made me feel sad because of how devastated he seemed by football’s reality; it wasn’t his experience, but that he couldn’t predict it. Somehow, other players learn to accept the pain that accompanies it, as most of us learn to accept life.

Like most Americans, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of tonight’s game, but I’m also going to try to remember that it isn’t ideal. And like everyone else, I’m going to get up tomorrow and head back to work.

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