Super Bowl champions: Looking for lessons in unexpected places

· Logos/Ethos

March, 2019

It’s been a month since the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory and not much has happened. Oh well, except for THAT … Notwithstanding the owner’s personal transgressions, I’d like to return to the team’s on-field achievement if I may, because I think it may be instructive.

The sustained excellence of the New England Patriots is a social phenomenon. Despite operating within an organization, the NFL, which is purposefully designed to prevent domination by any one organization, the Patriots have reached an historical level of sustained excellence.

I call the Patriots a social phenomenon because we can learn much about social and political organization by closely examining their success. What makes them different? The answer lies in their finding the perfect state of equilibrium between two goods which America has historically found difficult to achieve – the balance between individual rights and the common good. One could easily argue that these are the central values of our two major political parties.

Since the beginning of their reign, the Patriots have had only four Hall of Fame-level players: Ty Law, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and, briefly, Randy Moss. For the most part, the roster has been made up of skilled but not truly great players. In addition, Patriot players, including Brady, are not paid at market-level. How can a team sustain excellence like this? Let’s look outside of sports for an answer.

E.O. Wilson was an evolutionary biologist and the founder of a discipline known as “social biology” He studied ants and other social insects and drew comparisons to the evolution of homo sapiens. He observed that insects don’t compete with one another as individuals. Instead, they compete as a collective against other colonies and hives for survival.

Homo sapiens were ultimately selected because of a similar nature. We were cooperative enough as a species to be able to survive, but we have not flourished without difficulty. The key to our early survival was tribalism. Individuals learned to join forces, practice division of labor, and triumph over competitors in both the animal and human world. But we also possess a conflicting human impulse called self-interest.

Each player on the Patriot roster arrived here through self-interest. That is, he was individually selected by outperforming the hundreds of competitors he faced over his career. In this, all NFL rosters are roughly similar. What the Patriots’ organization has achieved is the complete transformation of their players’ instincts – from individual to collective, from selfish to altruistic. Wilson said this:

Individual selection … shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members. Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic toward one another (but not toward members of other groups.)

So what is our human nature? And what is the “nature” of the Patriots? Of our genetic social evolution Wilson might as well have been talking about the Patriots when he wrote: Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.

The Patriot environment is not for everyone. Over the last few years there have been some ex-Pats who have claimed that playing in Foxboro was “not fun”. This word choice is telling, and perhaps the key to understanding the team’s extraordinary achievement. To seek pleasure is to engage in what is essentially a selfish act. We don’t want “fun” for the benefit of other people. We want it for ourselves.

Watching the Patriots celebrate is to witness selfless individuals who take enormous pleasure in their collective survival as well as in their fellow tribesmen’s individual accomplishments. It’s fun to watch.

Can we find a lesson in here that can be applied to a nation as diverse and tribal as America in the 21st Century? Individual rights and the common good are both goods, not competing ideas. Finding equilibrium requires understanding its necessity, sacrifice, and trust, virtues currently in short supply.