The Lone Ranger and Tonto are galloping across the prairie, their horses straining at full speed beneath them. In hot pursuit are a few dozen Lakota braves bedecked in full war paint. With arrows and bullets flying past their heads, our heroes veer off into a narrow mountain pass, hoping to make good their escape in some hidden crevice or side trail.
Their hopes are dashed when they run square into a dead end. With nowhere to go and no way out, the pair wheel to face the enemy. The sheer walls of the ravine loom over them as the bristling arrows glint steely in the sun. At this critical moment, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Well, old friend, it looks like we’ve finally reached the end. This is it.”
Tonto thoughtfully spurs his horse, turning to face the Lone Ranger. He looks over his shoulder at the Sioux behind him, pauses, then turns back to look at his old friend one last time.
“What you mean ‘we’, white man?”
When I first heard this joke as a kid, I thought it was fricking hilarious. As time went by, and I became more serious in my ways, I still thought it was funny, but I began to see it as a morality play, full of lessons about individuality, social identification, collectivization, and community. These were all very important ideas when I first heard this joke, and continue to speak to many of the ills plaguing modern society today. So naturally, in choosing to take a deeper look at these issues here and now, I have taken the approach adopted by so many other red-blooded American males.
A conversation heard over breakfast the day after the Chicago Bears beat the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers.
“Who won the game last night?”
“Hah! That makes only three undefeated teams left. Dallas, New England and Indianapolis. And Indianapolis is definitely going to be the one to go all the way this year.”
“Why is that?”
“Because we won it all last year, and Dallas and New England don’t have what it takes to knock us off. In fact, by this time next week, there’s only gonna be two undefeated teams left.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because Dallas plays New England next week, so only one of those two teams is gonna be left.”
“What about Indianapolis? They might lose next week.”
“Not a chance. We’re going to stay undefeated.”
“How do you know that?”
“We don’t play next week.”
That last comment is the only thing my misguided Indianapolis friend got right. “We” definitely did not play next week, or any week, for that matter, at least insofar as “we” included this fan. This gets me to one of my little pet peeves in life, right up there with people slurping coffee or running their nails across a chalkboard, and that would be guys who act as though they are actually part of the team they are rooting for.
I hate to break it to you, guys, but you’re not. You’re not out on the field pouring sweat and dripping blood with every play. You weren’t there during two- and three-a-day practices in the hot August sun, losing 15 pounds of sweat with every practice. Your career and livelihood don’t depend on how well you play, and you’re definitely not putting your health, and even your life, on the line with each and every game.
Don’t get me wrong. Football is a fine sport, and rooting for a particular team can make a game more enjoyable. I mean, if you don’t care who wins, why watch in the first place? But when identification becomes insanity and cheering for a team crosses the line into obsession, things can get a little out of hand.
Case in point . . .
A few weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys won a come-from-behind victory over the Buffalo Bills in the last seconds of the game. I watched part of the first half in the TV room where I live, said room being packed with guys maniacally cheering for their respective teams. Dallas was way behind, 24-13 if I recall correctly, and the Dallas fans were uncharacteristically quiet. The anyone-but-Dallas guys were gleefully rubbing it in. When I left at the half to go to bed, outbreaks of angry shouting and shoving had already begun.
When I woke up the next morning, people told me that they’d heard on the news that Dallas had come back and won the game with a last-second field goal. I say they’d “heard” on the news because the situation in the TV room the previous night had apparently gotten so rowdy that security was called in to shut down the show.
Seriously, gentlemen, what were you thinking? Actually, no, don’t bother. I already know the answer. You weren’t thinking. You were drowning in a sea of testosterone, figuratively beating your chests and screaming at each other like a pack of wild baboons. And I don’t know why, but Dallas fans seem to be the worst of the lot, gloating over every play that goes their way, grumbling loudly for each one that doesn’t. The night of the Buffalo game they must have taken the macho posturing just a bit too far, and as a result wound up missing what was by all accounts a thrilling end of the game.
Having eked out a last-minute victory over Buffalo, a supposedly inferior team, Dallas was left to ponder its destiny as it prepared for its next game against the New England Patriots. Dallas fans were left to make weak excuses and desperate boasts as their team faced one of the NFL’s best over the past decade.
Now, as fate would have it, I happen to be a long-time, and thus long-suffering, New England fan. I lived in Boston when I was 5 and 6 years old while my dad was doing his post-doc work at MIT, and I’ve been following the Boston Patriots, now the New England Patriots, ever since.
And believe me, there were some miserable years in there. Forget Tom Brady, the “best point guard in the NFL.” I remember Jim Plunkett, Randy Vataha, Steve Grogan and the rest of those awful squads. Even when they managed to put together a halfway decent season in 1985, they wound up getting pummeled by the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. But like any good fan, I suffered the lean years in stoic silence. Then came Belicheck and Brady, and things were never the same. Something about that team, though –- its quiet demeanor, its rejection of superstar egos –- precluded the open gloating so often associated with fans of winning sports teams. Instead, I have quietly followed the team, inwardly rejoicing in its newfound success.
So I said nothing when New England soundly thrashed previously undefeated Dallas the following week. When the Pats pounded the Redskins the week after that, 52-7, I still kept my mouth shut, all the while awestruck at the strength of this year’s squad. But while I remained silent, my mind wondered. Hadn’t all those lean years of suffering entitled me to identify with the team? Couldn’t I take pride in their accomplishments as though they were in part my own? Was there any way that I, a mere spectator who has never even met a member of the Pats’ roster in real life, consider myself a part of the team, if only a very, very small part?
On a more general level, what does it mean to be part of a society, which is, after all, the non-sports word for team? Do we get to pick the society to which we belong, or is it something that is part of our innate nature, arising from our own personal characteristics? Are we stuck with our particular society, or can we, like Tonto in the joke at the top of this write-up, switch societies whenever it suits us? Are all members of a society equal, or, like the johnny-come-latelys flocking to the Patriot bandwagon, are some less equal than others?
In short, what do we mean when we say the word “we”?
These were the thoughts drifting through my mind as my team, and the nation, prepared for New England’s much-anticipated matchup with the then-undefeated Indianapolis Colts.
I was working security the afternoon of the Indianapolis-New England game, but, given the prior disturbance, my newly appointed rounds took me through the TV room regularly. My friend, the Indianapolis Colts fan, had been bragging about his team’s chances all week, and as I passed through the room for the first time he loudly announced “Look everyone, there’s Jim. He’s a New England fan.” The Dallas fans in attendance, still smarting from their solitary loss weeks before, soundly booed me. The Indianapolis fans, of which there were a surprisingly large number, joined in. I was, it seems, the only New England fan in attendance.
As the game progressed, things turned sour for the Pats. Indianapolis was getting pressure on Brady, Randy Moss was being held in check, and Peyton Manning was working his usual magic on the field. At one point in the third quarter, I believe, the Patriots were down 20-10. Things did not look good.
My Indianapolis friend wasted no opportunity to taunt me during the game. Each time I passed through the room, he would proclaim the score, asking me how I felt about it. With each passing taunt, I simply smiled back at him and said “The game’s not over yet, Fred. Ask me when it is.” Hardly original, I know, but at least I took a stand. In public, no less. Uncharacteristically joiny of me.
A little much for a football game, but it all worked out. Just like I asked for, too. Fifteen minutes after the game, my Indianapolis friend was hiding under the covers in his bed. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a sense of satisfaction out of that. I also got a tremendous sense of satisfaction at how the Patriots -- the team I had suffered with for years -- played with such grace and poise under tremendous pressure. The feeling was made all the sweeter by the fact that I had been forced to stand by my team when the chips were down, something I didn't ordinarily do.
As I walked away from the TV room, someone passing me in the hallway asked me how the game turned out. I thought for a moment. How to answer, how to answer?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary tells me that the word “we” is a pronoun used to denote a group (or society) that includes the speaker or writer. “Society,” in turn, refers to: (1) a voluntary association of persons for common ends; or (2) a part of a community bound together by common interests and standards. So when any of us, including myself, uses the word “we,” we are talking about a group, association or community bound together by common interests, standards, or ends, and to which we, as the writer or speaker, belong.
The people I work with tell me that there is no stronger tie binding a society or group than one forged by common suffering, and I believe them. Just ask anyone who's been through boot camp. They'll tell you.
Hmmmm . . . common interests and ends? Shared suffering? It all sounded so familiar.
My friend in the hall looked at me. "Well, who won?"
"We did," I said with a soft smile.