Eve and the serpent. Beowulf and Grendel. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
The great stories of Western culture—the ones that endure for generations—are tales of good versus evil. Not just "good" and "bad," either: Good versus Evil, the pure and noble hero against the evil black-hearted villain.
The NFL, like all sports, is entertainment. It's the stories, the narrative, the human drama that plays out on the field. Commissioner Goodell never hesitates to refer to games as "television shows," and there's a reason for that.
Hardcore football junkies may watch for the X-and-O chess match, or the war of technique and power being fought in the trenches. But the NFL's billions in revenue flow from the millions of eyeballs who tune in to watch Peyton Manning write the next chapter of his storybook career.
Of course, part of the entertainment of sport is being a "fan," a fanatic. Part of the fun is being someone who follows one team, watches the games and brands himself with the gear. Part of the enjoyment comes from watching "your" team fail or succeed.
The problem comes when "your" team doesn't match up with your own identity; when the team's brand doesn't mesh well with your own.
All NFL fans want their team to win. Most NFL fans feel there's a "right way" to win, an inherently noble way to come out on top. Most feel the "right way" involves a clean-cut, classy image, no rough stuff after the whistle and a round of firm handshakes and good-game wishes after the final gun.
But if all teams really played like gentlemen, the NFL would be a lot less entertaining.
One of the greatest rivalries of recent years was the matchup between Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.
Dungy wore every conceivable white hat: a clean-cut, soft-spoken family man with a well-earned reputation for charity work. His quarterback was cut from a similar cloth: Peyton Manning came from Southern—and football—royalty, and belied his encyclopedic knowledge of the game with humble words and self-deprecating jokes.
Belichick was deep in his "Coach Hoodie" phase, wearing a raggedly cut-off hooded sweatshirt just as the NFL was cracking down on sideline attire. The ever-scowling, ever aloof Belichick was (is) standoffish with the media and flatly does not care about his image.
Belichick has never shied away from players with character problems or emotional baggage—as long as they have talent. For his quarterback, Belichick didn't draft a golden boy like Manning; he rummaged around the bargain bin for Tom Brady, who, since polished up, has spent his free time hanging out on the cover of GQ and dating supermodels.
These narratives are what made the classic battles between the two teams all the more compelling. One Tony Dungy is a great story; a league full of Tony Dungys is a league devoid of stories.
When Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks got in the habit of dropping 50-plus points on opponents helpless to stop them, Carroll took plenty of heat for "running up the score." But by doing so he also issued an enticing challenge to future opponents: stop me, if you can.
Suddenly, NFL fans are tuning in not just to see who wins, but to see if the Seahawks will flay their next victim so mercilessly—or if anyone can stop the villains before they take over the world.
Think about the NFL's other black hats, like Ray Lewis and his Baltimore Ravens, Rex Ryan and his New York Jets, and James Harrison and his Pittsburgh Steelers. When they take on the white hats of the league, it's compelling. When they face off against each other, you get spectacular moments like Handshake-gate, when spittle-flecked Jim Harbaugh almost came to blows with Jim Schwartz and his "dirty" players:
Speaking from experience, there's an embarrassing price to pay when your team is the one taking potshots at the noble white-hatted cowboy and/or his faithful steed. If you like your teams to be held up as shining paragons of how John Wayne would have done it, but your coach plays poker with a marked deck, you're in a tough spot.
But there's a certain devilish glee to be found in cheering for the dark side; just ask Alabama football fans who've embraced their coach's win-at-all-costs mentality:
There might be a right way to play football, a way of which grandfather would nod approval, a way that makes you point it out to your kids.
Still, the NFL needs more "bad guys" to root against—or for—just as much as it needs more "good guys" doing things the "right way" to root for—or against.
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