At this point, the whole “Deflategate” drama centered around New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell requires no more explanation.
But if you’ve never heard of sports before, here’s the gist of what happened: In 2014, Brady was alleged to have broken league rules by ordering a little too much air out of game balls; the league ruled that, as punishment, Brady would serve a four game suspension to start the following season; Brady challenged the ruling in court, won, and had the suspension vacated; the league appealed that decision and had the suspension reinstated to take effect the following year in 2016; mercifully, Brady accepted the punishment, tanned naked in Italy for four weeks during his time off, came back, destroyed nearly every opponent on his shortened schedule, and captained the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time.
As far as stories go, that’s pretty tidy, with an apparent beginning, middle, and end. At Gillette Stadium Thursday night, though, where the Patriots hosted the Kansas City Chiefs shortly after unveiling the organization’s fifth Super Bowl banner, the fans still wanted blood.
Not Kansas City’s blood, mind you (nor would they get that, as the Patriots lost). They wanted Goodell’s. This was to be the commissioner’s first meaningful appearance back in New England since this whole dumb controversy hijacked our collective consciousness three years ago and some 65,000-plus fans jacked up on Dunkin Donuts iced coffee were ready to give him a piece of their minds.
As this all relates to beer, well, I guess it depends on how you look at it. Bud Light, Trillium, Coors Light, Tree House, Miller Lite, The Alchemist, and countless other macro and regional craft brands were there at the stadium, of course, fueling the tailgate fires across Foxboro’s parking lots. But that’s sort of a basic perception: Football, therefore beer.
When the fans filtered inside, though, an allegory of sorts emerged with the bloodthirsty Patriots fans, spoiled by a decade-plus of sustained success, and their beef with Goodell, standing in for the nation’s craft brewers and their own preeminent conflicts with the industry’s power dynamics. That is, before kickoff, there were thousands of people raging against a single, but much more powerful establishment, despite the fact that they walked into the building as champions.
In the stands Thursday, men and women waved 70,000 teal blue flags depicting Goodell’s face rudely interrupted by a fat red clown nose. Countless more were wearing shirts of the same. Both the flags and shirts came courtesy of Barstool Sports, a homegrown media antagonist that has taken it upon itself to lead this modern Patriot crusade. By the organization’s own founder, Dave “el pres” Portnoy’s count, the company was able to enlist more than 1,500 “stoolies” to hand the flags out leading into the game, and his grassroots rebellion seemed to have an impact: Though in Foxboro, Goodell himself wasn’t seen or heard from all night (aside from attending to some pre-game duties that took place before most fans made their way inside), a peculiar exception to opening night rules.
It’s not a perfect comparison to beer, but dream with me here. Craft brewers and their most ardent supporters are in myriad fights against innumerable enemies, despite their grassroots success. They’re fighting laws that have outlasted their utility by 80 years, the well-monied industry stakeholders that work like hell to preserve those laws to line their own pockets, the corporate leviathans who have proven adept at buying their way into the craft space or in some cases apeing it, and even one another, contrary to the kumbaya nature of craft brewing.
I thought of this dichotomy while in line for my first beer of the evening when a 35-year season ticket holder named Suzanne positioned herself behind me in line and asked, “Do you know what beer they’re serving here?” I didn’t, so she stepped out, walked to the front, and returned with the intel: Stella Artois, Heineken, and Heineken Light.
We continued chatting during our 10-minute wait in line, and I asked her what she thought of the fact that Patriots fans were still so hung up about all this Deflategate stuff. She said she understood and had issues of her own with the mishandling of the case, but at this point, just wished everyone would move on and let the team’s play speak for itself.
“Actions speak louder than words,” she said, pivoting. “Or towels.”
That’s a sentiment I hear a lot about beer too. In today’s industry climate, there’s a lot of “Well, don’t worry what anyone else is doing. Just put your head down and brew the best damn beer you can.” Others ask, conversely, “Why would we not rage against the forces contrary to our own interests?”
Personally, I see the merit in both stances. Actions do speak louder than words or towels. But again, Goodell ultimately wasn’t seen Thursday night, and at this point, it feels entirely possible that he won’t really return to Gillette in any visible fashion until after Brady retires, even if he continues to pull the strings that affect the field. The legendary quarterback is 40 after all. And that hypothetical absentia might be a victory in its own right.
But it also feels entirely possible that, as Sports Hub radio jock Marc “Beetle” Bertrand said before the game, “we’re gonna keep doing this ‘til the end of time.” And that’s, well, a little exhausting.