Perhaps the sight of Tom Brady’s chin dimple doesn’t blind you with seething rage. I guess you don’t have eyeballs.
Or maybe you’re not from Philadelphia. Eagles fans have recently been prevented from realizing a beloved postseason pastime—the city’s so-called “Crisco Cops” greased up downtown lamp posts to stop rowdy Philadelphians from scaling them. Perhaps now they can instead relish another classic activity: the great tradition of loathing the New England Patriots, everyone who holds them dear, and everything they represent.
The Patriots. Ugh. Even their team name is a lie. First of all, a bald eagle—so sleek! so majestic! so fierce!—is infinitely cooler than some dude wearing a tricorne hat. And can someone tell Robert Kraft that giving muskets to a bunch of LARPers in the endzone isn’t actually patriotic? Last time I checked, the cradle of liberty wasn’t in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Ben Franklin may have believed the nation’s premier bird was the turkey, but he still picked Philadelphia over Boston for a reason. (The reason: Philly’s better.)
Tom Brady. Ughhhhhh.
It isn’t the unrepentant cheating that makes him detestable—or even his thing with avocado “ice cream,” or that he’s from California, or that he wrote a book called The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance, or that he tried to sell people $99 science-pajamas, or that he has a controversial bromance with Donald Trump, or that he’s so wishy-washy about that bromance, or that he married a mega-successful knockout supermodel, or that he has a $44 million salary, or his 66,159 passing yards, or his five Super Bowl rings, or the fact that he is some kind of football-savant Benjamin Button who ages in reverse and physically cannot stop winning.
Actually, wait, it is the winning thing. It’s totally all the winning.
Tom Brady is eminently hateable because he’s so damned good. But there must be more to it than that. Philadelphians can’t be that petty, right? (Don’t answer that.)
People love an underdog, in part, because spectators are hedonists; they want an emotionally pleasurable experience. And, putting aside team loyalties, it turns out that rooting for a favorite like Brady to win is especially ho-hum if that favorite ends up losing. “Because it is unexpected, an underdog’s victory is more satisfying than a favorite’s and an underdog’s loss is much less traumatic,” wrote Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, the authors of a 1991 paper published in the Sociology of Sport Journal about the appeal of teams that are expected to lose. A utilitarian model would, they said, clearly predict the underdog effect.
The pair also identified the roots of the word, which they say goes back to the 19th century, at least, and a song titled “The Under-Dog in the Fight.” (It’s no Eagles fight song, but it’s certainly better than the sorry counterpart composed for Pats fans.) It goes like this:
I know that the world, that the great big world
Will never a moment stop
To see which dog may be in the fault,
But will shout for the dog on top.
But for me, I shall never pause to ask
Which dog may be in the right
For my heart will beat, while it beats at all,
For the underdog in the fight
You want an underdog you can believe in? Nick Foles is your guy. The safe bet may be to root for Brady and the Pats, but the science of underdog fandom is on Foles’s side. Consider the experiment Frazier and Snyder conducted in an attempt to quantify people’s tendency to favor the little guy. First, the researchers outlined a seven-game match-up between the strong favorite, Team A, and the obvious underdog, Team B. Then they asked 122 people who they would prefer to win. The vast majority of them—more than 80 percent—said they’d root for the underdogs on Team B.
But then—plot twist!—the researchers told participants that Team B had unexpectedly won the first three games in the series, putting them one win away from a championship victory. When they asked people who they’d root for in Game Four, about half of those who had originally chosen Team B said they’d switch their allegiance and support Team A instead. Among those who said they’d swap allegiances, the majority said they’d change back again—and support the original underdog team as planned—if the series ended up being tied 3-3 heading into Game Seven.
In other words, the researchers found not just the widespread preference for underdogs that they’d expected, but also a fluid sense of what makes someone an underdog.
Their findings have implications that extend beyond the sporting world. Underdogs show up throughout the history, literature, and mythology of the Western world. Going back to ancient times, one of the most compelling kinds of stories people tell is fundamentally concerned with underdog status.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, for example, once observed that the arc of one classic story type—characterized by a protagonist’s steady climb in good fortune, sudden fall, and eventual ascension back to happily ever after—can be found in anything from creation stories across major religions to Cinderella. A couple years ago, I wrote about a group of computer scientists who studied the emotional path of this story pattern, compared with several others, and found that it’s among the top narrative arcs favored by readers.
This same story arc arguably mirrors the trajectory of Tom Brady’s career. It wasn’t always easy for him, back before he was the king of the Super Bowl and the husband of a supermodel. This is the same Tom Brady who got so little playing time at the University of Michigan that he nearly transferred. And the same Tom Brady who began his career as a starting player with a humiliating loss to Notre Dame. “No one expects that this guy was going to be the best football player of all time. Even him!” said Mark Snyder, who was one of the beat writers who covered Brady’s redshirt junior season for the University of Michigan’s college paper in 1998. “No one really knew who he was. He was definitely an underdog.”
Then came the staircase-like climb in fortune. The wins began to add up. There was an impressive bowl-game performance. The fans (and professional recruiters) could see what Brady’s college teammates had always known—that he was a natural leader and a hell of a quarterback. “They knew,” said Michael Rosenberg, a Sports Illustrated reporter who covered Brady’s final college season for the Detroit Free Press. “Because they saw that in him then.”
Sportswriters like Snyder and Rosenberg could see it, too—the rare work ethic, the uncommon mental fortitude, a general sense of seriousness and resilience that set Brady apart, even on a team that had just won its first national championship in decades. “But if you had told me in December of 1999 that Tom Brady would be the best quarterback of all time, or have millions of people hate him, I would have thought you were the craziest person in the world,” Rosenberg said. “Nobody disliked him then. He was so nice.”
“The bottom line is the Patriots just win too much and people don’t like it,” he added. “Tom Brady has the perfect wife, the perfect face, the perfect life.” People’s hatred for Brady is “just a function of winning so much,” Rosenberg said.
The downfall in Brady’s story—the fall-from-grace moment that mirrors the clock striking midnight in Cinderella—might have been Deflategate. Or maybe it was the time the Pats went undefeated for an entire season, only to lose to the Giants in the Super Bowl (the rare instance when Eagles fans actually wanted the Giants to win).
At first glance, everything we know about what draws us to underdogs suggests that Tom Brady should be hated. He seems to be the exact opposite of an underdog. But there’s an argument to be made that it’s Brady’s extreme success as an underdog—ever climbing back to the heights of success—that has ultimately made him so thoroughly unlikeable.
“All those people who hate him,” Rosenberg added, “I bet if they spent an hour with him, they would say, ‘Okay, I was wrong.’”
All those people except the ones in Philly maybe. A fandom that’s notorious for booing Santa Claus, after all, isn’t likely to be swayed by how nice their rival is. (Santa had it coming.) The only redemption an Eagles fan is invested in is the kind that leads the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory. And that means achieving the seemingly impossible. It means stopping Tom Brady. It means trading underdog status for a championship ring. It could happen. Maybe. Right?