Monday, January 28, 2013

Your Handy-Dandy Guide To the Conspiracy Theories Around the AFC Championship Game

There are certain signifiers that one is taking one’s sports fandom too seriously. These include (but are not limited to): 
And last but not least, deciding that any time your team loses, it’s because of a conspiracy.

Now, I know conspiracy theories are hip right now. After all, it’s a lot more comforting to think that things happen for a reason - even if that reason is a bunch of scary old bald dudes getting together in a luxury sub-basement in Zurich and deciding who’s going to win the epic Bucknell-Lafayette lacrosse clash - than to think that we live in a world that is the product of the interaction of seemingly endless, planless chaos. The problem, however, with conspiracy theories is that believing in them requires you to hold two simultaneously contradictory thoughts in your head.
  1. There is a secret, shadowy cabal that exists that has the power to manipulate events to their liking
  2. This cabal, which wields immense power, is inevitably so sloppy that they leave their fingerpainted fingerprints all over everything they do, which allows people like your crazy uncle who’s had one hour-long introductory course in Photoshop Basics at the local extension school to discover all of their plans by means of a few well-placed Google image searches.
This is the sort of logic that lets people think that the US has a giant weather control device sitting in Alaska and yet cheerfully lets droughts ravage crops across the Midwest multiple years running. In the cold light of day, it doesn’t add up.  

Which brings us to the latest conspiracy theory to infect the world of sports, namely the idea that the NFL deliberately handed the AFC Championship game to the Baltimore Ravens. Why?
  • Well, apparently the league would bork its entire competitive model to let Ray Lewis go out with a Super Bowl win, because that’s what they did for Jerome Bettis when they had the refs throw that Super Bowl.
  • No, wait, it’s because they think the league wanted hot Harbaugh versus Harbaugh coaching action, because apparently that sort of contrived storyline is the only way you can get people to pay attention to what is annually the biggest television event on the planet.
  • Hang on, it’s because the league is still mad at Bill Belichick over secretly taping practices and the hoodie and stuff, because the best way to get your revenge on a coach is to let him be wildly successful up to a point, as opposed to, say, suspending him like they did Sean Payton.
  • Then again, it could be a makeup for last year, when the league supposedly screwed the Ravens out of an AFC championship through game clock shenanigans (and not, say, through John Harbaugh going all Andy Reid on his clock management).
There you go. Four possible reasons the league supposedly would have given the game to the Ravens, and of course all of them are bullcrap because:
  1. It seems unlikely that the Roger Goodell-led NFL, with its cartoon English public school notion of Playing By The Rules, would bend its own to satisfy one guy who A)hasn’t always been the most rule-abiding team B)plays with Ed Reed, whose overturned suspension was an embarrassment for the commissioner and C)does not seem capable of keeping his mouth shut about anything. Like, ever. 
  2. There were numerous storylines involving every possible combination of teams in the conference championships. 49ers and Patriots? It’s the Patriots attempting to avenge last year’s Super Bowl loss. Or it’s the up-and-comer coach versus the cagey veteran. Or it’s East Coast/West Coast. Ravens/Falcons? It’s whether Matty Ice can finally win the big one. There are 50+ guys on every team, plus coaches who get blown up into larger-than-life figures by the media, who’ve had 16+ games to find narratives somewhere in all that material. No matter who gets there, there’s going to be good stories.
  3. By all means, the best way to get revenge on Bill Belichick is to let him succeed to a certain point, earn bonus checks, get more television exposure, and then take a game away from him. 
  4. The only thing more ludicrous than the notion of the NFL borking its competitive model to give Ray Lewis a retirement watch is the NFL borking its competitive model to be “fair”. The consequences of a botched “makeup” call would be far more devastating to the NFL in terms of lost trust from fans and the all-important gambling market would be far worse than the consequences of a bad call in a big game, which, as the Seattle Seahawks can tell you, are nil. (Note: for extra credit, compare and contrast the collective shrug of the shoulders over the way the officiating screwed the Seahawks a few years back versus the endless agita over any missed call in any playoff baseball game, ever.)
Really, what it comes down to is that same notion of holding two mutually contradictory ideas in one’s head at any given time: that any victory your team (OK, the Patriots) achieves is through skill, talent, preparation and generally being better, and that any loss your team suffers can only be due to malice and conspiracy. Because, of course, the guys rooting for the other team are thinking the exact same thing. 

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