You’ve heard of art imitating life. Super Bowl LI was sports imitating politics.
As I watched the Atlanta Falcons slowly lose their 28-3 third quarter lead Sunday to the New England Patriots, I couldn’t help but compare the game to what unfolded on the national stage in the wee hours of Election Night.
As the Super Bowl started, a strange thing happened on social media. There was an odd political line drawn in the sand between the two teams, with so many comments painting the Patriots as cyphers for the Republicans and Donald Trump and others casting the Falcons as stand-ins for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.
The Pats are football’s bad boys, already bearing the black mark of Deflategate and quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension early in the season. Online, that drew comparisons to Trump from the left. Add that to support for Trump voiced by both Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and the association was set.
And in a darker vein, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, tweeted that he was “Rooting for the Pats!” because they had three white wide receivers and are consistently the NFL’s whitest team — which also pitted liberal tweeters against New England.
Meanwhile, Atlanta roused its fans with the hashtag #RiseUp, which invokes the feeling of grassroots political activism. And New York Daily News senior justice writer Shaun King was among those who helped shape the political angle by tweeting, “TOUCHDOWN!!!!! Take that Trump!” with an unflattering image of the president.
Whatever its merits or lack thereof, the game was cast in a white hat-black hat mentality.
Those comments became more overtly political in the second quarter as Atlanta went up by 18 points. After all, no team had ever come back from a two-touchdown deficit to win the Super Bowl and it seemed the only path to victory would be to “deflate some more balls,” as one tweeter put it. “Patriots could still win this via the electoral college,” joked another, riffing on how Clinton carried the popular vote by a margin of three million but still lost to Trump.
Then the Falcons went up by 25. Even Trump seemed convinced this one was over.
“It’s 28-3 in the third quarter and the president has left his Super Bowl party,” posted Bloomberg political reporter Jennifer Epstein, igniting the fuse on more poli-football comments: “Obviously the game must be ‘rigged,’” said one. “He’s calling for a full investigation. Paid for by the Falcons,” said another. And a third: “Perhaps they’ll devise an alternative score.”
That brash confidence soon died out and was replaced by incredulity as Brady orchestrated the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. “This is November 8 at like 8:59 p.m.” Epstein tweeted.
It was the first Super Bowl to go into overtime, further casting the game as a Trump-Clinton parable. I watched New England score five times in succession, unanswered by the Falcons, and couldn’t help but recall how the so-called “Blue Wall” of North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Virginia all went red in an unlikely chain election forecasters had viewed as all but impossible.
First, James White punched it in from five yards out, then Stephen Gostkowski added a 33-yard field goal. Danny Amendola caught a Brady pass for a six-yard TD and James White added six more to the score with a one-yard run, topped by a two-point pass to Amendola. White had the knock-out punch with a two-yard run to put the game away for a 34-28 final.
The victory, his fifth Lombardi trophy, propelled Brady past Hall-of-Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
And in an abstract way, it denied shocked Atlanta fans of a bizarrely-projected political catharsis. Many went to bed feeling like the New England coup had somehow validated the Trump presidency.
Never mind that the realms of football and politics have nothing to do with each other. But the feeling of deja vu was there, it was strong, and — no matter whether you stand on the left, the right, or solidly in the middle — it made Super Bowl LI perhaps the most memorable game since Super Bowl XXIII in 1989, when John Taylor caught Montana’s miracle throw in the back of the end zone to best the Bengals.