Patriots

Patriots

It’s another rivalry week in New England — but that only means it’s another week, right? These days it feels like “rivalry” is all we do around here. So far this season the Patriots wrestled with the rival Steelers in Week 1, then the rival Bills in Week 2. Last week they took on the rival Colts. This week it’s the rival Jets. After that it’s the rival Dolphins, followed in two weeks by the rival Giants, then (again) the rival Bills and then a trip to Denver to play the rival Broncos. Rivalries! They’re everywhere. And it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about rivalry — “Emulation is the child of ambition; rivalry is the unlovable daughter of envy.”

Three reasons I love this quote:

1) It’s attributed to Honoré de Balzac and that’s a fantastic name. It just rolls off your tongue. If you’re unfamiliar, Monsieur Balzac was a French novelist and playwright during the Napoleonic era. He died in 1850. Victor Hugo was a pall bearer at his funeral. He also looked like the love child of Zach Galafanakis and Jon Lovitz.

2) It’s just a great quote, and what’s so great is that it’s dirty. It’s dark. It’s real. That’s refreshing because over time the concept of “rivalry” has lost a lot of its dark side. In 2015, rivalry is a lazy cover line. It’s a shticky ad campaign. It’s a cliché to boost puffy narratives about why wacky sports fans love sports and why athletes play the game. But back in the early 1800s, old Balzac knew the truth. “Rivalry is the unlovable daughter of envy.”

Anyone who cared about the Red Sox before 2004 knows exactly what that means. They understand just how dark and twisted a rivalry can be. Today we think back to the good old days when the Sox and Yankees truly hated each other and it was all just so much fun. But before 2004, the good old days were miserable. The Red Sox/Yankees rivalry was torture. And while some will argue that the torture made 2004 even sweeter — it was still torture. And that’s how rivalries are born; not through the thrill of victory but in the bitterness of defeat. So as much as you might love a particular rivalry, don’t forget that it only exists because it made you feel like hell. It’s the unlovable child of envy.

3) Finally this quote is so perfect for explaining the state of the Patriots and the parade of rivalries they face this and almost every year. It’s simple: The Patriots are the most envied team in sports. You might make an argument for the San Antonio Spurs but again that’s where Balzac makes the distinction. Emulation is not rivalry. Teams don’t envy the Spurs as much as they respect them. No one’s laughing at Tim Duncan when he mopes off the court after a lost playoff series.

Meanwhile, footage of Tom Brady sulking after a Super Bowl would be the country’s No. 1 most-watched comedy. The rest of the football world not only hates the Patriots, but they get off on hating the Patriots. The Pats are everything the Yankees were before 2004, and every time Brady and company take the field the whole world is waiting for them to fail. That might sound psychotic and the embodiment of everything that everyone hates about this team and their fans, but it’s true. The Pats know how much the other team — any team — wants to slay the giant. They know how much the media and the Internet is dying for the opportunity to pile on and fire holes into a sinking Patriots ship. In that sense, the rivalry isn’t so much the Patriots against the world as it is the world against the Patriots, but if you’re the Patriots that has to wear on you, and inspire you, and ignite it’s own kind of fire. If you’re a player in that locker room, you want to be able to turn on ESPN or sign into Twitter that next week without cringing at the sights and sounds of everyone dancing on your grave. So really, the rivalry becomes more about not losing than winning. It becomes more about preventing the other side from being happy than making yourself happy. That’s because in a rivalry the losses always hurt more than the wins feel good. That’s so twisted but that’s where we are. That’s what this is. And as the Pats prepare for Sunday’s latest rivalry they do so with one more simple truth weighing heavy on their brains:

There’s no happiness more painful than Jets happiness.


Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine