If I can start out here with a bit of shameless self-promotion. Some time ago the bosses at WEEI.com asked me if I’d be interested in doing some video for them. The general idea was a man-in-the-street type of thing, interviewing fans at various sporting events. Sort of like Jay Leno’s "Jaywalking" segment, except hopefully entertaining.
So I more or less jumped at the chance. First, because I’m the youngest of five in a loud Irish Catholic Boston family, so any chance I have to get people pay attention to me, I’ll take. And, second, because I’m not an expert at many things, but if there’s one subject I can rightfully claim to be an expert on, it’s sports fans.
I’m not a stats guy. I’m not a gambler. I’m lousy at picking against the spread. A Magic 8 Ball makes better predictions than I do. But studying an understanding the people in the stands, in the bars and scoring the game at home has been my life’s work.
So with that in mind, I came up with the name “Fanthropolgy,” and the bosses approved. We’ve done a handful of them so far, you can check them out here to see how successful we’ve been so far ... well, judge for yourself.
But the reason I bring this up is because this week I’m excited about this project like I’ve never been excited before. Because this Sunday one of my favorite species of sports fan is coming to town, and I finally get to capture it on camera. The genus Meadowlanda Ganggreenus.
New York Jets fans.
I don’t know what it is about them, but I’ve been fascinated by Jets fans my whole life. Everything about them. Their customs. Their beliefs. Their superstitions. Their language. The way they worship. Mating habits. Their whole existence just enthralls me somehow.
Growing up in New England, and by extension the AFC East, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity to study Jets fans’ culture. I’ve watched them at distance. Studied films of them. Had encounters with them up here in Foxboro. And because my friends and I used to make an annual road trip down to the Meadowlands, I’ve been able to observe them in their native habitat. And I can tell you they are endlessly interesting creatures.
I think the main reason I’m fascinated by Jets fans is the same reason any anthropologist studies a past civilization or why Jane Goodall studied primates: Because in many ways they remind us of ourselves. Learning about the people who follow the J! E! T! S! is a way to learn more about who we are.
Because the Jets fans are us. That is, the us of 25 years ago. In many ways, their culture is just a less evolved version of our own. Think about it. What were our lives like back oh, say, in the year 1985 AD? We were barely eking out an NFL existence. Life was nothing but hardship. On the field, the Patriots were one of the least successful franchises in the history of sports. Off the field, they were a constant circus of bad characters, embarrassing incidents, habitual criminal offenders, hapless coaches and management buffoons.
So success was defined down. We graded on the scale. While other teams strove for championships, we were content with a playoff spot or even just being over .500. Anything better than last place and firing the coach was considered progress. Even on the rare occasion the Pats had actual, real, genuine success, it was short lived. The greatest moment the Pats had in that era was the improbable run to Super Bowl XX, and even that set news world record for futility and humiliation.
So we lowered our expections. And the low standards carried over into the stands. Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro wasn’t so much a football stadium as it was a complete breakdown in the societal order. A descent into madness and chaos. It was "Lord of the Flies" with beer.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Subtract that one Super Bowl appearance and you’ve got the New York Jets of the past 40 years. Failure. Incompetence. Wasted draft picks. Criminals and baby daddies. A chain of fools through the coach’s office. And a laughingstock franchise that was picked as the fifth worst in NFL history in ESPN’s all-time power rankings last year.
And like those primitive Patriots fans of long ago, the Jets fans in the stands have also been a reflection of their team. The old Giants Stadium was Kurt Russell in an eye patch away from being "Escape from New York." Fanthropologists with doctorates in Jets Fan Studies will tell you that they’re only contribution to civilization has been the ritual of dropping money down at the bottom of stadium ramps, then pouring beer and hocking loogies on any kid or old person who stopped to pick it up. And their only contribution to the language is "Show us your t**s!"
And yet, somehow, there’s something endearing about the window-licking little lobotomites. I mean it. For all the failure and degradation, Jets fans have always managed to find reason to believe things are getting better. That they’re on the verge of greatness. It’s amazing.
Possibly no fan base in all of sports has witnessed fewer accomplishments and celebrated them more than the Jets' has. In 1998, Bill Parcells led the Jets to the AFC championship game and had them leading in the third quarter until Denver came back and won. When the Patriots did the exact same thing in 2006, losing to Indianapolis, we called that season a "disappointment" and rarely speak of it. But to a man, Jets fans treated '98 like it was the beginning of a dynasty.
The same thing with last season. Gang Green went to the AFCCG on the strength of a playoff run against two of the most underachieving franchises of the modern era (Cincy and San Diego) and it was all the city of New York could do not to send the team down the Canyon of Heroes. Contrast that to two years earlier when the Pats lost a perfect season in the last minute of the Super Bowl, a moment we hold up as the gold standard for crushed expectations.
Because again as I said, Patriots fans have evolved in ways the Jets fans haven’t. Where we look at a playoff loss as costing us a championship, they see miracles happening. They’re like those primitive tribesmen on isolated islands in the Pacific who saw bombers fly over head and worshiped them as gods because they didn’t know any better. It’s naive, but it’s admirable at the same time.
And like so many other non-advanced societies, the Jets fans have a shaman they follow. A superstitious "wise man" whom they believe has magic powers. I’ve studied the one they call "Fireman Ed" for decades now, and as far as I can tell the only thing that sets him apart from the rest of the tribe is his elaborate headdress. He doesn’t do anything particularly special. He doesn’t do "Baby Elephant Dance" like Dancing Homer did for the Springfield Isotopes. He just watches the game while wearing a hat. But that’s enough to give him sway over these noble savages. If you’re an old enough Pats fan, you might recall a similar figure in Patriots history, the one we called SuperPatriot. But rather than follow him, or give his own iPhone app like Fireman Ed, we just pelted SuperPatriot with snowballs.
So this is my challenge for the game Sunday. To know as much as I can about these people before I walk among them taping interviews. And to that end, I’m learning their language. How they communicate. I’ve studied the thread on JetsInsider.com about how Danny Woodhead’s head injury in Week 17 is proof that the Jets did the right thing in letting him go to New England. And the one that says WEEI "has fueled the violence that you see from Pats fans toward Jet fans." And my personal favorite, the one on GangGreen.com called "Midnight Service at the Darrelle Revis House of Worship."
Because I want to be ready. It’s rare that even the most hardcore Fanthropologist gets to study such a rare and fascinating breed. And since their season will be over, this is the last chance any of us will get for a while. Thanks in advance for your cooperation, Jets fans.