When 20 of us piled into a friend's apartment in February 2004 to watch the second New England Patriots Super Bowl of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, half the room wanted to see if they could win again.
A year later — going for their third Super Bowl in four years — the Patriots' cheering section in the room had dwindled to one. That was 13 years and five Super Bowls ago.
But rooting against the Patriots for the sake of variety has long since given way to reflexive rejection. People hate the Patriots in the generational way that people living along borders in flatter European countries used to hate their neighbors: because they destroyed your father and grandfather before him; because they were always a threat and they would always be a threat; because it has never not been this way.
It's been easy, for a long time, for the casual hater to get away with saying, "Man, everybody hates the Patriots," partly due to the solipsistic appeal to the majority fallacy on which most sports popularity arguments rely, but partly because it's very nearly true. With the possible exception of Meryl Streep, nobody this good for this long in this popular a medium has gone un-resented or un-loathed. But the team may have transcended even that.
Perhaps literally everyone hates the Patriots. Everyone certainly can.
Liberals can: That Tom Brady kept a Trump MAGA hat in his locker is no surprise because this is someone who believes that drinking the right amount of water makes you sunlight-invincible. And until I learn otherwise, I want to believe that Bill Belichick wrote a letter praising Donald Trump because he thought it would be funny to humor a demented old fraud who "wasn't going to win anyway." But you can't ignore what happened: On the largest platform in the sports world, the two biggest icons of football smarts not only didn't call out a staggeringly under-qualified misogynist racist but instead called him "friend" and wrote him a mash note.
Conservatives can hate them, too. Ordinarily, conservatives and football are a match made in heaven, but the Patriots represent the incarnation of every conservative cliché about the Clintons, only in this case all the hyperbole applies. The Patriots really are coastal elites who break the rules and get away with it. They don't just enjoy East Coast media bias, they're inseparable from it. The Brady/Belichick Pats are a well-oiled machine that chews up and spits out people to perpetuate itself, because it doesn't matter who gets crushed to generate another victory for this pair. And a pliant media used to creating and nurturing stars made them celebrities for it.
Regular working people? They not only can hate the Patriots, but they should. The Pats might come packaged like a slick new app, but the team embodies a turn-of-the-century meatpacking plant, where everyone's spare parts can be sold, and everyone's a cop. You can see it at the end of "The Education of a Coach," David Halberstam's 2005 history of Bill Belichick's career: "The younger players thus came to understand that this was what the NFL was all about, that the better you were, the harder you worked," Halberstam wrote. "To [Belichick], everything had to be earned and earned again and again, nothing was a given."
It was a compliment when it was written. But in 2018, starting the fifth decade of rising productivity but virtually stagnant real wages — when secure jobs and retirement seem more out of reach and your bosses keep tabs on you online at all hours — the Patriots seem like a mascot for our national horror show.
Hustle now sounds like the things hassling us to our graves. Belichick deliberately underpays coaches he expects to work 80 hours a week, and every player is replaceable (and is repeatedly told that). Becoming a team leader means taking on more responsibility even after demonstrating that you're already better than your peers, and one of those responsibilities is hounding players beneath you about sacrificing more. Slack on any of that, and they dock ya.
Football fans can certainly hate the team, and not just because they're good. The Patriots are a constant reminder of how elusive basic competency remains in a billion-dollar league that takes itself more seriously than most religions.
The old line about the Patriots is that they will never hand you a game, and they will always stick around until you do something to beat yourself, and, God, it sucks that it's true. Beyond the nearly two decades of success, the records and the cultic praise lies the most enervating fact of all: That nothing they do should be that special, and that excellence shouldn't be rare.
Managing the salary cap shouldn't be this hard. Ditto the clock. Ditto constant in-game adjustments. There should be more than one team that always makes you beat them instead of falling apart on its own, and it is tremendously messed up that Bill Belichick's willingness to throw out his preferred way of doing things to reshape team strategy for each opponent is mostly unique among coaches in the league.
Not screwing up how the game works on every level shouldn't be this hard, and every team and every fan should be able to eventually enjoy this kind of prosperity. The fact that it's so easy to turn on a random football game and see a coach who can't coach one half of the game, can't adapt and can't read a watch never stops being flabbergasting.
Every fan of every team deserves to see their team play good football. But, if good football remains this elusive — if after all this time, the prospect of your team playing football this seamlessly remains nowhere in sight — you have to fall back on the one realization that hurts most of all: Maybe the Patriots actually are that good, and maybe no one else ever will be.
But the kick in the pants is that even Patriots fans can hate their team.
Even fans of similar dynasties, like the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and 90s, never had to twist themselves in so many knots. The Niners were knocked for being a finesse team that always got the best of egregious calls and dibs on great players. The Patriots have the same dubious advantages and, on top of the queasy task of whitewashing them, their fans must add the greater humiliation of reckoning with Spygate, Deflategate and Aaron Hernandez (the tight end who murdered people).
The franchise convinced its fans that it was different than the other teams. But that smarter way of doing things for which they were once celebrated? Maybe it was just cheating. The classiest organization? Just watch Bill Belichick sulking off the field with one second on the clock, before losing the chance to be the first team to go 19-0. The "we" not "me" culture? There's Tom Brady, being as much of a brand clown as any other sports icon, trying to get his teammates to listen to his whack-job nutritionist and testimonials about water intake making them impervious to sunburn.
Patriots fans already have to celebrate a hooded rule-breaker and an Uggs-clad himbo to try to convince everyone else that there's something more fundamental to their dynasty than having the rare great quarterback, a reasonably smart coach, a contempt for the rules, a soft division and an "any given Sunday" playoff crapshoot.
And, worst of all, they know that the rest of the league just isn't that good, and they know that sometimes "greatness" amounts to simply not rejecting the bad calls, the good players and the bungled games handed to them.
The Patriots' fans devotion to this dynasty will never not require a rationalization or an apology. At some level, how can their fans not hate them, too?
Jeb Lund is a former political columnist and reporter for Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He has a podcast called This Week In Atrocity.