Patriots' Tom Brady

This is a very big week in our house in Wicklow. My hometown team, the New England Patriots, is back in the Super Bowl and facing our sworn enemy, the New York Giants. I am hoping and praying that the Patriots will exact revenge for the devastating loss in Super Bowl XLII the Giants inflicted on that year’s theretofore undefeated team.

The New York Giants of the National Football League are – the New York Yankees included – the professional sports franchise I loathe most of all. Battles during college with Giants fans and, even more vexingly, heated discussions with my father fueled this passionate and venomous distaste. My father, like many of his generation in Boston, grew up a Giants fan in the days before our city had a professional sports franchise. Just as after the 2008 Super Bowl, there will undoubtedly be a grin on his face late on Sunday evening, regardless of who wins.
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This Super Bowl is particularly special for me in that my 12 year old Irish son, Seán, has become a huge fan of American football. Each and every day, he is tuned into NFL-related programming on satellite television or on his iPod. Not having grown up with it, his instincts for some of the mechanics of the sport are still developing, but his understanding of the rules and his knowledge of the players and teams are just as good as any young fan in the United States. Most important of all, however, he is a fanatical supporter of the New England Patriots – as if he had any choice!

Over the years, I have been heartened to witness the expansion in popularity of American football on this side of the Atlantic. Anyone who has traveled to the annual NFL regular season game played at Wembley Stadium in London will have been blown away by the incredible sight of more than 80,000 fans from all over the world wearing the jerseys of just about every team. The NFL is carried weekly on the Sky Sports television network and has a faithful following in the United Kingdom and further afield. In addition, there are American football leagues throughout the UK and, as fellow attendees at the game in London have told me, all over the world.

The strong connections between Ireland and the United States make this country exceptionally fertile territory for American football. Thousands of returned emigrants still follow the teams of their erstwhile hometowns. Countless others acquired a taste for the sport on visits to their American cousins. Many more have been taken in by their friends’ infectious enthusiasm for the sport.

At the same time, the number of young, home-grown Irish fans of American football continues to grow. By way of evidentiary anecdote, the mixture of commiseration and good-natured abuse I received from my law students at the National University of Ireland, Galway after the Patriots lost the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants was overwhelming. And this September’s Notre Dame-Naval Academy collegiate game promises to pack Dublin’s Aviva Stadium with Irish fans and American visitors alike.

Unfortunately, there are still those who heap scorn on American football, and who lace their scorn with tired old stereotypes about America and Americans. Sports journalist Brian O’Connor of the Irish Times appears to be one such individual. In a column enticingly entitled “Super Bowl may be worth staying up for,” Mr. O’Connor commences by positing that most Irish people, like him, have never heard of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. That admission of his own ignorance, and of his view of the knowledge base of most readers of his column (presumably sports fans!), eventually yields to a repetition of some oft-repeated canards.

Mr. O’Connor states that football “seems to fundamentally exist for the purpose of allowing American couch potatoes to continue their metamorphosis into farm animals by eating their meals out of ever-expanding buckets.” Next, he cites “the moronic exchange of cliches that passes for commentary, a never-ceasing torrent of irrelevance that passes for enlightenment.” Also, according to Mr. O'Connor, football statistics are “all bogus anyway. Never forget that 97 per cent of statistics are made up on the spot.”

Wow. Americans are fat, indolent, stupid and shallow creatures. At other points, the column intimates that Americans are self-obsessed and, even worse, blissfully unaware of our own self-obsession. Some concessions offered in the column – it is possible that Irish athletes too might use performance enhancing drugs and it is difficult “to scoff at the athleticism, nerve and sheer drama of it all” – could be read to evince that the columnist is attempting irony as he explicitly endeavors “to indulge in some Yankee bashing.” But I don’t think so. Then again, as Mr. O’Connor would probably point out, Americans don’t get irony.

Albeit begrudgingly, he intends to give watching the Super Bowl a go because “sport can still come up trumps; even sport of the American variety.” How gracious of him. Take it from me, Mr. O'Connor: please don’t. We Americans in Ireland, and the many thousands of Irish men and women who’ve clearly been led astray, are having Super Bowl parties into the wee hours of Monday morning in every corner of this island. And you’re not invited.