What Football Can Show Us
When it comes to facts, it’s often impossible for two opposed statements to both be true. There is no such thing as “alternative facts” when it comes to, for example, the number of people who attended a particular event. But when dealing with stories, the truth of one narrative does not necessarily mean that another narrative is false, even if they sound entirely different. How do we learn to deal with these types of competing narratives?
Football, understood as a system for creating mythological stories, provides an excellent example. In one football story, an underdog team, with an underappreciated quarterback, finally breaks through after years of falling short. Their top-rated offense doesn’t sputter one bit in the playoffs and leads them to two big playoff victories in the last two games at their home stadium. Trying to bring a Super Bowl victory to a city that has never experienced one, they find themselves taking on a perennial powerhouse that has 4 Super Bowl championships in the last 15 years — the last only two years ago. After taking a huge lead behind their on-field leader and some timely defensive plays, they start making mistakes and keep the door open just long enough for a comeback. They pull off the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history, surrendering a 25 point lead and going into overtime, where they lose on the very first drive. They go home, defeated, questioning their ability to ever break through to a title.
Meanwhile, in another story, a team whose last season ended with a failed two-point conversion, finds themselves going up against a league commissioner with unchecked power and questionable decision-making ability. On the basis of circumstantial evidence, he takes away two of their draft picks and suspends their star quarterback for four games. In spite of these penalties, the team manages to go 14–2 in the regular season and cruise through the playoffs, where the commissioner refuses to show up to any of their games. Finally, in the Super Bowl, they pull off an amazing comeback from an early deficit, and after forcing overtime with a successful two-point conversion, they score the game-winning touchdown. They’ve won championships before, but this one’s the sweetest because the commissioner is forced to present them the Lombardi Trophy. He is booed so loudly that no one can hear his remarks before he hands the microphone to the team’s owner.
If you aren’t familiar with what happened in the most recent Super Bowl between the Falcons and the Patriots, you might not realize that these two stories are describing the exact same event. The first story about the Falcons sounds like the classic narrative of an underdog going up against a more powerful opponent — only it leads to a sad ending, with the stronger foe prevailing. The second story about the Patriots sounds more like the case of a lone ranger fighting back against the system, with justice prevailing in the final scene.
Which one is true? The answer is both: the bad guy won, and the good guy won. The facts are verifiable — the Falcons and Patriots did play each other in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots did end up winning in overtime after being down by 25 points. Neither story is built around factually inaccurate statements; narratives crafted out of proven falsehoods are still just lies, no matter how often they are repeated or how badly some people want to believe them.
The difference between these two stories is not in the facts themselves, but in the way those very same details are put together to construct the narrative. It begins with the perspective of the storyteller: who are the most important characters in the story? It could be the Falcons or the Patriots, but that choice is going to change how the rest of the story is told. Depending on who we are putting at the center, decisions are made about which facts are, and aren’t, important.
For someone supporting the Falcons, the fact that their city and their quarterback have never won a championship is crucial to recognizing why winning that Super Bowl would’ve mattered so much to them. A Falcons fan will also point out that the Patriots have been consistently one of the best teams in the league, giving it a sense of a David vs. Goliath-type matchup. Those facts create the foundation of the underdog narrative that makes the Falcons a defeated hero.
But that also involves choosing not to mention the ongoing battle between the Patriots and the commissioner. As a Patriots fan, though, that was the central feature of the narrative. It wasn’t about defeating a team that had never won a Super Bowl before. It was about the fact that, while we couldn’t stop Roger Goodell from taking away those picks or suspending our quarterback, there was one thing we could get — a Super Bowl victory that would embarrass him and leave us with a sense that he got what he deserved.
We can use these stories, created within the mythology of football, to navigate through these types of competing narratives. These myths are not functioning with a binary system of right or wrong. Rather, they are operating within a space where it is possible to see that the same basic facts can be arranged in different ways into stories that sound different and yet remain both true. We have to figure out how to deal with this type of “story-truth” because, within our current American society, there are so many different perspectives that are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Learning how to deal with these competing narratives is more important than ever, and the myth-creating universe of football is as good a starting point for that education as any.
To work through these types of narratives, we first need to recognize that this does not mean all stories are valid. Facts still matter. If someone says, “The Patriots pulled off an amazing 25 point comeback!” and someone else responds with, “The Falcons blew a 25 point lead,” those statements are equally valid and just have a different frame of reference. But if a third person insists that the Falcons actually won the game and that it never went into overtime, the only appropriate response is to tell that person to go check out a box score and get their facts straight.
We also need to learn that we can listen to other people’s narratives without getting defensive about our own. I am still very excited about the Patriots victory, and still love watching this Tom Brady commercial. Recognizing that someone else’s experience of that game was different from my own does not mean that the Patriots did not win, or that my excitement is invalid. But it makes a big difference if I can realize that other people (i.e., most non-New Englanders) didn’t really want to see the Patriots win a 5th Super Bowl, and that fans of other teams are mostly looking forward to Brady and Belichick retiring. Both of our stories can be right, so there is no need for me to attack them for holding that position.
When we do not have to get defensive about our own narratives, we can, and should, take the time to listen to competing narratives. Competing narratives are also true, and they can include facts and information that we would otherwise miss or not place into context. We all have a perspective, and that causes us to focus on the details that are important for our stories. However, when we hear other narratives, we start seeing what we didn’t notice before.
As a Patriots fan, there are certain things that I care about and know about, like what makes Roger Goodell such a terrible commissioner. But I enjoy football more when I can take in the knowledge and experience of fans of other teams — they know their players, their histories, and the ins and outs of what’s happening in that particular part of the NFL. The same is true of life: the more we know about all of the different aspects of it, the more we can enjoy it, and that’s the opportunity we get by taking in new stories.