17 March 2008
Lessons on American foreign policy from the former NFL superpower
By Matt Fay
For a time in 2007, the New England Patriots appeared to be the very definition of a superpower. After achieving an undefeated regular season and arriving at the Super Bowl 18-0, the Patriots seemed poised to make history and become the first team in the history of the NFL to have a perfect 19-0 season. On the eve of Super Bowl XLII, few predicted anything but a Patriot victory. Pre-game analysis didn't focus on the question of whether the Patriots would win the Super Bowl, but rather on whether the Patriots were in fact the greatest football team ever to take the field.
The Patriots' Super Bowl foes, the New York Giants, were as a clear an underdog as there has been in a Super Bowl. They already had been beaten by the Patriots at home in the regular season. They had backed their way into the playoffs. They had a quarterback who was talented but inconsistent. Their defensive line was strong, but their defensive backfield was easily exploitable. The power demonstrated by Brady and Moss, with the game's best offensive line providing the "grunt work" up front, should have made short work of the overmatched Giants. But they didn't.
The lesson of the Patriots' downfall is that any superpower, whether on the world stage or a football field, can fall victim to hubris and be defeated by a weaker opponent.
The League of Nations
The National Football League, stripped of its context as a sports league, is strikingly similar to the system of international relations. There are outside actors who attempt to influence those within the system (NGOs, transnational corporations, criminal/terrorist organizations), and, of course, there are elements within each actor who attempt to influence each actor in different ways. The actors compete economically, diplomatically, and often times on the field - the football field or battlefield. The most obvious similarity between these two systems is that their actors exist in a state of conflict. In the international system, that schedule is often only known by a few. Luckily, in the NFL, the conflict is scheduled.
When the the National Football League, then called the American Professional Football Association, was formed in 1920 it was a loose conglomerate of football teams brought together to compete against each other. Not too long afterward the Chicago Bears, previously known as the Decatur Staleys, became the most dominant team in the league. George Halas, acting as the owner and coach of the Bears, could have easily been seen as the analogous historical equivalent of a Caesar. (Or maybe King George would be more appropriate.) Halas was one of the men who founded the league, and he always made sure his Bears had every advantage to win, even going so far as to have the rival Acme Packers of Green Bay, WI kicked out of the league for a short period of time. Halas scheduled his team, featuring running back Harold "Red" Grange, to tour the country in 1925. The "barnstorming" tour popularized the now renamed National Football League and established the Chicago Bears as its most dominant force. The Bears reached the height of their power in 1940, defeating the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the NFL Championship. In the system that was the early NFL, the Bears were its Roman or British Empire.
The NFL, like the international system, evolved over time. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins became the first and only team to achieve an undefeated season. As the league gained popularity, new actors came into play, and the competition meant that the most powerful actor could no longer just act as it pleased. International groups emerged to regulate behavior between actors, making it difficult for great powers to emerge. Because of the NFL's strict agreements to ensure "fair play," such as revenue-sharing, it was expected that no other team would again go undefeated. Likewise, the United Nations is intended to achieve similar parity in the international realm (although Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner arguably has more power and influence than Ban Ki Moon has as UN Secretary-General) in order to discourage the emergence of new superpowers.
The NFL-international affairs analogy even demonstrates how voluntary trade with those of questionable character, e.g. the Oakland Raiders, can be beneficial and value-added. The New England Patriots were able to obtain Randy Moss from the Raiders for a fourth round draft pick. That's like getting Iran to stop enriching uranium for a few gallons of gasoline. If Al Davis can be negotiated with, there is nothing that says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot be as well.
But despite efforts to level the playing field, the New England Patriots - employing the very American values of hard work, innovation, and opportunity - were able to build a team that nearly accomplished the unthinkable. Bill Belicheck was their general when they were out on the field, and Tom Brady throwing the deep ball to Randy Moss was their own nuclear deterrent. As owner and General Manager, Robert Kraft and Scott Pioli, provided their general with the tools necessary to prevail in any battle.
The similarities between the NFL and the international system are most striking in the context of power. On the field the Patriots could seemingly impose their will on any other team. But the Patriots also allowed their superpower status to go to their heads. They occasionally broke the rules and mocked their opponents. They ran up the score on opponents and they have run plays on 4th down when they had already locked up a victory. But hubris eventually has its price.
Lessons for contemporary Patriots
As the world's only superpower, United States military can seemingly defeat any opponent. But a Tuesday morning in September, the country suffered the most catastrophic terrorist attack in history. Militarily the United States has no rival, but it was not attacked by a military. The world's sole superpower was attacked by a ragtag group of religious extremists operating out of one of the poorest, most war-torn countries on the planet.
The attacks of 9/11 were an unspeakable crime and a terrible tragedy, but on a systemic level, Al Qaeda attacking the United States was analogous to a High School football team stepping on the field to play the Patriots. With some cheap shots and dirty plays they could inflict some damage, but in the end they should have no chance of actually winning the game.
But the refusal to change one's strategy in the face of new realities can be the downfall of the superpower. While our military will not lose a battle to the insurgents in Iraq, we can be beaten through improvisation and spectacular attacks like the one that destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. Unless we allow our foreign policy to recognize and adapt to these new threats, we will continue to fall victim to our own hubris.
The Patriots would always tell the media how much they respected their opponents and wouldn't take them lightly, but Tom Brady let their hubris slip on Super Bowl "Media Day" with his incredulous response to Plaxico Burress' prediction of a 23-17 Giants victory saying, "Does he really think we'll only score 17?" In the end they would score less than that, losing 17-14.
The United States tries to say all the right things when it comes to its foreign policy. It is spreading democracy. It is liberating people from dictators. It is working for the betterment of mankind. But hubris is difficult to hide, and our failure to recognize our own shortcomings has been fatal. In the months leading up to the war in Iraq officials from the Bush administration asserted that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld believed that the war and occupation would last no longer than six months. The "cakewalk" never materialized for the U.S. in Iraq, and it never materialized for the Patriots at Super Bowl XLII. The question is, will we learn our lesson?