The indelible image from this year's NFL playoffs so far isn't Anthony Hitchens shoving Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew on a disputed pass interference call that wasn't. Instead, it's Chris Christie, sports fan and presumed 2016 presidential hopeful, caught in an embarrassing man hug in the Dallas owner's box after that play helped secure his favorite team a dramatic victory. Yes, the governor of New Jersey was caught on tape rooting for ... the Dallas Cowboys?
Christie has actually made no secret of the fact that he's been a Dallas fan nearly all his life, since the days of their Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach in the early 1970s. It's not even the first time he's been spotted in Jerry Jones's owner's box this season. That he's remained loyal to them despite the political inconvenience should be admired, particularly in a candidate whose primary selling point is the strength of his convictions. Nevertheless, the mocking and anger reached fever pitch last night as NFL fans lashed out at the Cowboys, owner Jerry Jones, and his friend the Governor.
The joke-turned-meme immediately centered on the "damage" Christie had done to his general election chances. It's one thing to be labeled a RINO or to get caught on tape muttering about the 47 percent, but what candidate could possibly get past a photo (and Vine and GIF) of him embracing the billionaire owner of "America's Team"?
Obviously, this won't really hurt Christie politically. After all, he did get elected governor despite not being a fan of either of his state's two NFL teams. And the implications of the conspiracy-minded notwithstanding, he was clearly the guest of the team's owner because he's a famous fan, not a connected politician looking for a handout. Plus, he now has the support of Cowboy fans, who are genuinely spread far and wide across the country. However, that popularity makes them an equally popular target for the hatred of non-Cowboy fans, who often see Dallas as the privileged rich kid who gets all the (undeserved) breaks off and on the field.
In politics, as in sports, perception is everything. The greatest virtue a sports fan can have is supporting a loveable loser. You can't truly appreciate the highs of winning if you haven't experienced the unbearable lows of failure. (Preferably a lot of emotionally devastating failure.) Conversely, there's no more reviled sports fan than the front runner: The fan who latches on to a team that always seems to find their way to the top of the standings and never knows what true heartbreak is. If you have a legitimate connection to a team—geographical, familial, collegiate—that's one thing. But to latch on to a team that's given you no reason to root for them other than the fact they're good and you can make their glory your own will always come across as cheap and easy. Christie's true sports crime? He picked a winner.
To be fair to nine-year-old Chris Christie, when it came time to pick a favorite sports team, his options were limited. The New York Giants and Jets hadn't yet moved to the Meadowlands and to this day still haven't had the decency to acknowledge it with a name change. So he was a free agent fan, so to speak. But of all the NFL teams to pick, why the Cowboys?
Because they were very good.
Prior to 1971—the season Christie jumped on the bandwagon—the Cowboys had reached the NFL playoffs for five straight years, reaching (and losing) the Super Bowl in 1970. Over the next 15 years, they would miss the postseason only twice, capturing nine division championships, four conference championships, and two Super Bowls. Yes, Sunday's win was just their second playoff win in the last 18 years, but that streak began after a run of three Super Bowl victories in four seasons in the 1990s.
Contrast that with the Detroit Lions, the team Dallas beat on Sunday. They have exactly one playoff victory in the last 57 years. You can see how rooting for the Cowboys over the last 40 has been a rather smooth ride.
Which brings us back to that disputed penalty. For those who weren't watching, Dallas was called for pass interference on a crucial play, late in Sunday's game. The call was then reversed, without explanation, and despite Dallas possibly committing two other penalties on the same play, the game suddenly swung in their favor. Naturally, the anti-Cowboys camp assumed the fix was in.
Even with their up-and-down struggles in the last decade, the team's legacy as one of the "haves" of the sports world hasn't diminished in the eyes of the "have nots." The Cowboys play in the largest stadium in the NFL, with a hole in the roof "so God can watch His favorite team play." With standing-room-only tickets ($29 a pop) it can expand to hold 105,000 people for special events. The $1.1 billion technological monstrosity is called AT&T Stadium, but has unofficially been dubbed "Jerry World" in honor of the team's equally outsized owner.
Jones is a subject of endless fascination and derision, who doesn't play by the NFL's rules and has enriched himself tremendously by refusing to do so. Even if that means a few thousand fans get screwed out of seats to the Super Bowl. (The fact that he has been sued by the league and embarrassed them more than once, doesn't help the argument that the league is rigged for them, even if other evidence does.)
There's also a certain arrogance attached to Jones and Cowboy fans in general. That arrogance isn't unearned given the team's legacy of winning, but it also isn't appreciated by those who have suffered greater sports hardships. It's an arrogance that Christie and his brother played into on Monday, implying those who are mad at the Governor are just jealous. (Or losers. Or fat.)
Love the 'Boys and you're going to have to face the haters. It's just a deal that Cowboys fans like Christie have learned to accept.