The most skin-crawling moment of every NFL season is, without fail, as the winners of the Super Bowl are announced unironically as “world champions”. American sports repeatedly make it their prerogative to universalise their champions for us, and for that – of course – we are eternally ungrateful. Why bother with the formalities of actual global competition when it can be kindly circumvented by the red, white and blue, a national anthem, a fly over and an overzealous commentator?
Now, this isn’t to say that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t the best American football team in the world, they would clearly beat any other team from any other country. It’s just to suggest that crowning a world champion without a world championships is a painful and self-congratulatory charade. It is American exceptionalism qua sports.
This same thinking has been utilised, since Sunday, to make the argument that Tom Brady is the greatest athlete living or dead. This despite the quarterback position, much like the sport itself, lingering in an absurd space between the mesmerising and the esoteric, inaccessible to a majority beyond the shores of the States.
This had me thinking, can the greatest athlete of all time really play a sport so bewildering, so melodramatic, to so many around the world? And, equally, do the geographical confinities of the NFL ultimately prove fatal when comparing its heroes to the truly globe-trotting and passport-hardened superstars of other sports?
If Brady is the greatest athlete of all time then undoubtedly the bright lights of American exceptionalism will have illuminated the road. But it would be wrong to overcompensate and overcorrect in our final judgement of the exceptional sporting American, as many have, because of the questionable means. A vital truth lurks beneath the hyperbole.
The divine sporting Logos
Admittedly, in a year saturated with infinite rules and regulations, watching the Super Bowl wasn’t any kind of helpful escapism. The sport is complex and legalistic. It requires a cerebral physically; a tempered abandonment which stops and starts like a ferocious resuscitation attempt, and turns on and off like a TV under the command of a toddler.
Come last Sunday night, Tom Brady hoisted his seventh Super Bowl, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers romped to a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. This past week has been the coronation of a king. There have been stories about Brady’s diet, his body, his age, his training, his tequila and most importantly, for me at least, his being the greatest athlete of all time.
This struck me as odd, as if an American footballer could really stake a claim in such a global conversation. Brady is a historical figure, no doubt, and there is a certain timelessness about his existence. But of this sporting generation alone we have: Federer, Bolt, Biles, LeBron, Phelps, Serena, Messi, Ronaldo; and they stand on the shoulders of Jordan, Navratilova, Pele, Maradona, Ali, Owens, and Gretzky, among others. Truthfully, Brady still feels like the pick of the patriot, the all-American favourite, rather than an unrivalled personification of the divine sporting Logos.
God’s own game
An article in The Week defines American exceptionalism as, “A belief that the U.S follows a path of history different from the laws or norms that govern other countries”, another in The Atlantic says it is, “The idea that the United States has a set of characteristics that gives it a unique capacity and responsibility to help make the world a better place”. This is a prism that American sports commentary cannot easily escape.
The astronomical viewing figures of the Super Bowl, the aversion to draws and ties, the anti-puritanical stance on the relationship between sports and the spectacle, embracing the singing, dancing and prancing of supersonic events, led one writer to describe how, “the glitz of gridiron always leaves me grateful for American exceptionalism”.
While most might not be so gushing, the case for Brady as the greatest of all time certainly rests upon the notion that his sport, for better or worse, follows a different path of history; that the laws and norms that govern American football, miraculously suspended or superseded by the quarterback on countless occasions, are somehow pre-ordinately superior. Brady has, through the eyes of American exceptionalism, mastered God’s own game – and surely he has.
An irreverent conversation
So, is Tom Brady the greatest athlete of all time? Very possibly. But the truth is indistinguishable from the noise; the magnificence inextricably bound to the megaphone.
Perhaps it is a testament to the irreverence of the conversation that the answer is never really about sports. Our questions determine our conclusions, and our qualifications produce their equal disqualifications, all contributing to individual hierarchies of precision, physicality, consistency, longevity, personality, perhaps even tragedy.
As we sit captivated by coloured blobs, cheering arbitrarily for teams from places we will never visit as they ruin yet another Monday morning, it is the sinking feeling which beautifully and paradoxically lifts us. It is this contradictory and incoherent language that guides our understanding of the greatest; so many words ultimately untranslatable but which gratify our attempts at expression, nonetheless.
Perhaps the argument for Tom Brady is reliant upon American hyperbole, but perhaps the argument for Roger Federer is reliant upon an understated politeness, and perhaps the argument for Usain Bolt is reliant upon a contagious laughter. Perhaps the simplicity and complexity of a sport does influence our appreciation of its greatness; perhaps we are just conducting monologues of sporting nationalism and geography has tyrannised us all. The presence of sports is intrinsically existential, and so are our conversations about it.
The world according to Wess
In his own tribute video, the late great sports broadcaster Chris Wesseling is recorded explaining that: “Something is always lost in art and experience when you analyse it… If I were to hire a sportswriter the first question I would ask them is, ‘How do you reconcile the essential meaninglessness of sports? How do you reconcile watching young men bang into each other and try to advance an inflated pigskin against marked territory? How do you reconcile the importance of that?’” He concludes, “At its best sports is look at what humans can do.”
Tom Brady, in my mind, has achieved something remarkable, something sensational, he has taken the essential meaninglessness of sports, the advancing of a pigskin, and made it worthy of hyperbole. Chris was right: sports – at its best – is to gaze desperately, ecstatically, infuriatingly, enviously, peacefully, and powerfully at what human beings can do. To see the exceptional beneath the exceptionalism, to acknowledge the sublime absurdity of greatness and just behold it.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons