There may be 53 players on each team, but an outsized portion of the attention during Super Bowl LIII will go to Tom Brady. He may deserve the focus, being one of the greatest players in NFL history, but it will frustrate the millions of football fans who loathe him.
“I find myself rooting for the other team because it’s the more interesting outcome,” Marc Sestir said.
Sestir is an assistant professor of psychology at University of Central Arkansas who grew up in NY Giants territory. He said Tuesday that America’s collective love of the underdog is a big reason that so many people love to hate Brady.
“You look at our sports narratives, the popular movies that we like,” he mentioned, “the movies like Hoosiers, and Rudy, and Remember the Titans, and that sort of stuff. And, it’s always about scrappy underdogs, like, overcoming the odds and beating the team that is really, strongly favored.”
Sestir believes some of the animosity toward Brady, a five-time Super Bowl winner, comes from cognitive dissonance. He explained that, when one’s beliefs do not match up with an outcome, the brain tries to rationalize the difference to protect itself. With Brady, since many fans want him to lose, they point to scandals such as Deflategate and Spygate to explain why he and the New England Patriots win so frequently.
“They start feeling like they’re getting where they’re getting because they’re cheating,” Sestir said, “because they aren’t doing things fairly.
“And that’s not necessarily a fair evaluation, but it’s a really easy thing for people to hook onto, to continue to root against that favored team and for the underdog.”
Sports media, and its reaction to Brady’s many years of success, might also turn fans off.
“There’s an idea called reactance,” Sestir explained, “which is that when you feel compelled to do something, you tend to resist against it by breaking hard in the opposite direction. So, when you see a guy get all these accolades and all this success, and all this praise, there’s a natural human tendency to say, ‘oh, no, that guy doesn’t deserve any of that. I hate that guy.’ And, the more often you’re exposed to it, the more you’re saturated by it, kind of the harder you veer against it, where you’re like, ‘I’m sick of this guy. He gets too much praise, he gets too much credit.’
“And then you start to think of reasons why, or you kind of generate reasons why on the fly. But, really, the whole start of it is, ‘I feel like I’m being pressured to adore this guy, and I want to go in the opposite direction of that. I want to assert my individuality.’”
Brady was the prototypical underdog early in his career. He was not a full-time starter at the University of Michigan and was famously picked 199th in the 2000 NFL Draft. An injury to Drew Bledsoe made him the starter in New England in his second season, which ended with his first Super Bowl victory.
His life since then is seemingly as charmed as could be. He signed several multi-million-dollar contracts, has earned national endorsements, and married supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
“We can add a lot of explanations, but in some ways, the simplest explanation can be good, old fashioned envy,” Sestir said. “You know, Tom Brady leads a life that a lot of people would dream of, especially people that really like football.”
Brady also fuels the most tribal instincts of football fans. In the constant struggle of ingroup vs. outgroup, Brady and the Patriots are the competition most fans know their team will have to overcome in order to win, themselves. Sestir said that once Brady finally retires, fans’ relationship with Brady will improve.
“It’s an incredible story, and I think people will appreciate it more once he stops being a threat to their team,” he argued. “I think we will like him more in retrospect than we do in the present. I mean, he’s not LeBron James, he wasn’t getting called ‘the Chosen One’ when he was 14 years old. He’s somebody who started off very undervalued really wound up in a perfect situation but took maximum advantage of that.”