Is "Boston Strong" Really a Thing?


Does tragedy breed greatness? Over the past week, I received numerous emails from fans questioning the connection between the Boston Red Sox improbable run to become World Series champions and the horrific bombing at this year’s Boston Marathon. Were the BoSox really “Boston Strong?” Or was their success an intentional, staged event meant as a way to not just soothe a local tragedy, but to capitalize upon it?

The questions and implications that follow certainly sound sick. What sort of depraved mind would link two seemingly divergent events and insinuate such theories? Strangely, though, this notion is not without precedence. Throughout history, sports have been used towards political or religious ends. The Greeks created the ancient Olympics as a build-up towards war, or at times, to show the grandeur of a king. The Romans staged gladiatorial games as a means to distract the populace from certain political decisions. The use of knights, sumo, and even lacrosse by Native Americans had alternative purposes beyond pure “sport.” So why would today’s sporting events be used any differently?

Let’s go back a dozen years to the events of September 11, 2001. Clearly, no other date has lived in infamy to this modern generation as much as 9/11. It changed the foundation of American society. So what were the odds that of all the teams to win the Super Bowl immediately following that historical date was one named the Patriots?

Now the skeptics out there immediately jump on two facts: one, the first champion crowned after 9/11 hailed from Arizona, and two, those Diamondbacks defeated none other than the New York Yankees 4-3 in that 2001 World Series. New York, you see, was at the center of 9/11. The fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center are the iconic image implanted in most everyone’s brain from that day. If a sports league was going to be so callus as to profit from a tragedy, how could the Yankees lose (besides being outscored 37-14 while posting an all-time World Series low with a team batting average of just .183)? In fact, why wouldn’t the New York Giants or Jets have been the NFL’s choice of champion if it were to follow suit?

The answer is simple. The events of 9/11 were not a local event. It was national in scope. Yes, New York City was a focal point, but lives were also lost in Washington, DC and Shanksville, PA. People from the Southern US certainly wouldn’t call themselves “Yankees,” nor would Midwesterners or West Coasters. While the Giants may have the all-American red, white, and blue colors, the team’s name conjures up no American spirit. And would anyone really have wanted a team named the “Jets” represented in the Super Bowl considering the terrorists’ weapon of choice?

We, as a nation, felt as if we had to come together after being attacked on our home soil. We had to defend ourselves, strengthen, and in time, fight back. How did this make us all feel? A bit patriotic, no?

 And so here came the New England Patriots. After their $103 million quarterback Drew Bledsoe nearly died from internal bleeding after a sidelines hit in Week 2, the reigns of the franchise were unceremoniously handed over to an unknown named Tom Brady. Then the magic happened. The Patriots steamed into the playoffs, winning 11 of their last 14 games, advanced thanks to the infamous Tuck Rule, and landed in the Super Bowl as 14-point underdogs to the “Greatest Show on Turf,” the St. Louis Rams.

Super Bowl XXXVI and its broadcast became part football game, part propaganda event. For the first time in its history, the NFL discarded its original Super Bowl logo for one more patriotic. In a recorded pre-game segment, former and current NFL players recited the Declaration of Independence. The Patriots themselves refused to be introduced individually as tradition mandated, instead they took the field as a team. Former president George H.W. Bush took part in the game’s coin-toss, an NFL first. The halftime show was a complete “rah-rah, go USA!” pep rally, even if led by Irish band U2 who played while a list of 9/11 victims was projected on a screen behind them. And lo and behold, the New England Patriots—perhaps with a little assistance from the early stages of Spygate, or thanks to referees allowing the Patriots DBs to manhandle the Rams wide receivers, or maybe a little of both—won the game.

I know what you’re thinking if you’re read this far: you don’t believe in this sort of mass psychological mind-control nonsense. The Super Bowl wasn’t used as a psy-ops offensive against American citizens. What do the Patriots winning have to do with 9/11? That question in an answer unto itself: the “Patriots”—namely you and I, Mr. and Mrs. America—will win “9/11” in the long run…not as individuals, but as a team.

Jumping ahead five years, the city of New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Despite the fact that thousands of people along the Gulf Coast felt the wrath of that Category 5 storm, “N’awlins” became the media’s focal point. This was a localized tragedy, and the team that best represented that area—in fact the only professional sporting team in the area—was the hapless Saints.

After enduring a 3-13 season which saw them playing “home” games in the Meadowlands, Baton Rouge, and San Antonio, the Saints rebuilt completely. The Super Dome was renovated as was the team, adding a new coaching staff headed by Sean Payton along with a turnover of over half of their players (34 members of their 53-man roster) which added both Drew Brees and number two overall draft pick (a shock at the time, remember?) Reggie Bush. 

No one predicted this team to do anything. Who would given the circumstances? Then came the Saints third game of the season, their home-opener against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. This game, if you saw it, was a New Orleans love-fest. The dignitaries were out in droves, including former president Bush (again). A special song, “The Saints are Coming” performed by Green Day and U2 (again), was broadcast during an ESPN pregame show. Could this game have ended any other way than with a Saints win? Of course not.

Invigorated by a 3-0 start, the Saints marched through the NFL. NBC declared they were “the team America is rooting for” in a Sunday Night Football promo. Yeah, that same Saints team whose fans were best known for wearing paper bags over their heads. But the party came to a sudden halt in the NFC Championship Game versus the Chicago Bears. As the skeptics point out: the Bears won, not New Orleans. If the NFL was helping the Saints along this far, why wouldn’t the league push them all the way to the Super Bowl?

 Recall the events of Super Bowl XL, played just the year prior. The Seattle Seahawks were (some would say) robbed by the referees who gave rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers the Lombardi Trophy. The NFL had sports conspiracy theorists coming out of the woodwork after that game, claiming the fix was in. Four years later, head referee Bill Leavy confirmed their thoughts as he apologized to the Seahawks for his work in that Super Bowl. Would the league really risk back-to-back controversial seasons?

Yet that one loss did not stop the NFL’s new found love of all things New Orleans. Listening to the league and watching the promos, one would believe Commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of his NFL cohorts reconstructed the city. “The Saints rebuilt New Orleans” was the rally cry, even if the league and Saints owner Tom Benson contributed only about 10 percent of Super Dome’s rehabilitation costs (FEMA paid most of the $190 million cost). And let’s face it; the Super Dome isn’t the entirety of New Orleans. Even during that fabled Monday Night game, much of the city lay in ruins without power while under the Super Dome’s bright lights, all appeared jubilant.

This propaganda display refused to stop. The NFL’s partner Visa featured Brees and the Saints in a two-year long promotional campaign. The Saints were everywhere, including the Super Bowl just four years post-Katrina. There, they faced New Orleans native Peyton Manning and the Colts, and the rest as they say, is history. Because after the NFL promoted and profited from the Saints storyline, the team was decimated by the Bountygate scandal.

This year, another localized tragedy took center stage as Patriots’ Day in Boston was derailed by the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Lives were lost. Both the traditional Red Sox and Bruins games scheduled that day were postponed. As the manhunt for the bombers consumed the city, it felt as if America was once again unsecured, unprepared. But then as David Ortiz reminded fans just five days after the bombing, “This is our f***ing city,” suddenly both teams became “Boston Strong.”

First came the Bruins who seemed to carry the city’s torch high and bright into the playoffs. Teetering on certain elimination in Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins staged a miraculous three-goal comeback late in the third period to force overtime. There, they eliminated the Leafs. Boston Strong indeed. Sure enough, the Bruins powered into the Stanley Cup Finals as they faced-off against another Original Six team, the Chicago Blackhawks. Members of the Bruins recorded a video for the NHL, explaining how much a Stanley Cup win would mean to the city in the wake of the bombing. 

 But here again came the skeptics. If the Bruins were meant to represent the “Boston Strong” ideal, why were the Blackhawks victorious in six games, rather than the Bruins? To me and several other NHL fans, it appeared as if the referees in Game 6 were giving the Bruins ample opportunity to win and force a deciding Game 7. Up 1-0 in the game, the Bruins were awarded four unanswered power plays, yet failed to capitalize on any of them. Still, they led 2-1 with 1:16 left in the game. Seventeen seconds later, the chance of a Game 7 vanished as the Blackhawks scored two crowd-silencing goals to raise the Cup. The Boston Strong theory imploded.

That is, until the Red Sox marched into the 2013 MLB playoffs. Suddenly, there was a resurgence of the rally cry. “B Strong" was cut into the outfield grass. The Boston bearded-ones became a team of destiny. How? Good question. This did not seem to be a World Series caliber team back in spring training. Not by a long shot. They finished 69-93 in 2012, 26 games behind the division winning Yankees. They dumped over $160 million in salary by trading away stars Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a rebuilding maneuver. They fired manager Bobby Valentine, bringing in John Farrell as their new skipper. Pre-2013, only four of ESPN’s 43 “experts” thought the Red Sox would be playoff bound this season—one of which was a homer, ESPN Boston’s Joe McDonald—and all four assumed that they would only be a wildcard. Not one of Sports Illustrated’s seven experts thought the BoSox had a chance of making the playoffs.

Yet the Boston Red Sox are the 2013 MLB World Series champions. To bring the story full circle, during their victory parade, the Red Sox paused and placed the World Series trophy on the marathon’s finish line while accompanied by a rendition of “God Bless America.”

So why didn’t the shootings at Columbine or Sandy Hook lead some team to a championship? Why didn’t Super Storm Sandy make a New York team a winner? Perhaps it was because no team or league decided to make these disasters a rallying point—and that may be more important than some believe. As Boston College psychology professor Donna Canavan claimed, a team may be propelled by the “social energy” created by overcoming some tragic situation. Being “Boston Strong” really meant something, and it showed. Maybe.