The need to find greatness somewhere, somehow

It took less time than normal for this year’s Super Bowl coverage to make me feel like heatstroke was imminent. Looking back, it might have been the article with the headline “Ahmad Bradshaw’s heart inspires New York Giants” that finally did it. Maybe it was the story about how the Patriots had divine intervention on their side against Baltimore because a receiver dropped a touchdown and the kicker missed a field goal in the same game. Could it have been the debate on “ESPN First Take,” still TV’s best case for deafness, on whether or not Eli Manning has a “psychological edge” over Tom Brady? Lest any Giants fan lose sleep, Stephen A. Smith thinks he does.

All the same, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for everyone tasked with providing two weeks of hype for these teams. If this year’s coverage seems a little more awful than usual, as if every writer is going with his sixth-best idea for a story, the urge to retch is understandable. Divine intervention and Ahmad Bradshaw’s heart aside, neither the Giants nor the Patriots are anyone’s idea of a “great” team, and while it’s anybody’s guess of what “great” truly is, it’s a little easier to see what it isn’t. New England had not defeated a team with a winning record this year before they beat the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl, and apparently it took “an angel on their side” to do even that.

The Giants, for their part, would be the first Super Bowl-winning team in NFL history to have been outscored on the season. The ’07 Patriots and ’86 Giants these teams are not, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Somebody has to win every year, and as far as the 2011 contenders were concerned, things could have been a lot worse. T.J. Yates? Green Bay and the worst defense in history? (whisper) Tim Tebow? Maybe things worked out for the best, and not just because the Giants and Patriots played a reasonably entertaining Super Bowl only four years ago.

To hear the voices in the media, however, you would think that a Giants-Patriots Super Bowl has been decreed from on high, preordained by the same football gods who once let Trent Dilfer win a championship. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see how the media either can’t or won’t deal with a situation where two obviously flawed teams are the last ones standing. The hole in the football narrative caused by the absence of any real greatness gets patched up with stories of destiny and intangibles (Eli’s “psychological edge”), as greatness in disguise. As a result, these become the two ends of the spectrum in the media’s story — greatness or destiny, with nothing in between.

Of course, there’s a chance none of this really matters, since as long as everyone is willing to go along with those two choices, then the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of middle ground won’t mean a thing. But I hope that it does matter. I want to believe that we are getting smarter in the way we watch sports today, and that the notion of fans being intimidated by the gray area is ridiculous, and insulting. I’d like to think we could deal with it if the weekly columnists and talking heads calmed down and acknowledged that the Giants were a decent team with a very good quarterback whose defensive line got healthy at the right time and avoided the one playoff match-up that really scared them (having to play the Saints in New Orleans). This seems immensely preferable to being force-fed the idea that the Giants’ clutch, gritty intangibles are flat-out better than any other team’s. The last time I checked, their roster isn’t made up of fifty-three Derek Jeters, and they aren’t scoring points off of Ahmad Bradshaw’s heart.

It’s hard to deny the appeal that comes with watching a truly great team, and so those involved can be forgiven for doing their best to convince us that we are watching exactly that. Yet, some sports better than others have been able to embrace the constant disconnect between the best teams and the championship teams; in baseball, a wild-card team that won 90 games could only win the World Series so many times before the experts threw up their hands and the “Moneyball”-inspired concept of playoff randomness started to gain real traction.

On the flip side, it’s in the NFL universe, more than anywhere else, where this notion that only the best will make it to the finish line stubbornly persists. Whoever wins on Sunday will automatically become the brightest star in the constellation, no matter what.

There are probably a dozen other columns to be written about why exactly this is, all pivoting on one glib axiom or another about football as a symbol of … whatever. Life’s constant struggle to gain even a little ground? Sure. The meritocracy that doesn’t exist in the real world? Fine. A strategic military campaign? George Carlin already did that one.

Instead, I’ll go with the simplest answer I can think of: Football is the people’s game, and in the media’s eyes, the people demand greatness above all else. Well, either greatness or destiny. But nothing in between.

Timothy is a junior. You can reach him at tbernst1@swarthmore.edu.

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