Coming off Friday's presidential inauguration, and a rancorous campaign that's left America historically divided, a source of unity and common ground can be found in the most unlikely of places: the New England Patriots.
We need to watch Roger Goodell step on that national stage and congratulate the team he exorbitantly punished heading into the season.
Not because Tom Brady is easy to root for. He's not, given that whole GOAT thing mixed with the super-model wife mixed with the overwhelming circumstantial evidence he's pretty great at cheating, too. Not exactly Mr. Everyman.
Not because Robert Kraft makes it easy with humility in the face of potential wrongdoing, or Belichick wins all of us over with his overpowering charm and personality, or even some misguided notion that in the interests of greatness we should yearn for yet another Patriots championship.
In fact, I find myself full of a strange mix of deep admiration and searing dislike for that organization. On one hand, it's hard not to look with great respect on what they've accomplished -- the rings, the culture, the consistency -- and to not consider Brady and Belichick football's perfect all-time pairing.
But there's also a deep unlikability to the whole operation -- the arrogance mixed with Spygate and Deflategate -- and a sense in some way big or small the greatest coach, quarterback and maybe franchise in league history cheated to get there.
Nope, rooting for the Patriots as a country has nothing to do with the Patriots. We need to root for New England so we can all revel in the look on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's face when there's nowhere left to hide -- can't go to Atlanta again, commish! -- as he has to climb those steps and congratulate Brady, Belichick and that organization as the confetti floats down and championship trophy comes their way.
Goodell has faced this music before, though the volume hadn't been cranked up. Remember, he handed the Pats the trophy after Malcolm Butler picked off a 28-24 Super Bowl XLIX win with Deflategate in its infancy. After two years of Goodell-Kraft tension, a post-Super Bowl hand-off would be reminiscent of Al Davis and Pete Rozelle in 1981, when then-commissioner Rozelle had to fork over the Super Bowl XV hardware to nemesis Davis, who had sued the league in an effort to move his club.
Bonus moment: Brady capturing the Super Bowl MVP and getting it handed to him from Goodell.
First of all, close your eyes and picture the scene: Goodell's pinched smile.
Brady's smug self-satisfaction.
Belichick, preferably in a hoodie, staring blankly at the man the Patriots believe unfairly attacked their legacy and current title hopes.
And Kraft looking over the commish the way a predator looks at his prey just before he strikes.
Pure comedy gold.
But there's a deeper pull for all of us if the Pats can rattle off two more wins, something truly worth hoping for and celebrating. It's one thing to be a scoundrel, as the Patriots surely have been, over and over, under this regime. There's a deep history in America of rooting for and being shaped by scoundrels: Frank Sinatra. Bill Clinton. Tony Soprano. Han Solo. Kanye.
Bullies, and strong men with unchecked power, are something else entirely. They have no place in the better parts of our history as a country, sports or otherwise. And as Goodell went from enforcer of fairness in the NFL -- which I initially supported -- to one-man dictator with no accountability, the whole seedy episode became ugly. Ugly for a fan, ugly for a member of the media, ugly for everyone involved.
Then came the playoffs, the commissioner's conspicuous absence from Gillette Stadium, and the sense the guy who'd meted out the punishment couldn't face those he'd punished. It just seemed ... not right. Not the way it's supposed to be.
There's a code in sportswriting that you always show up -- especially after writing or saying on television or radio something particularly negative or critical. I follow it, and it's put me on the wrong side of LeBron James, Chris Paul, old-school MLB skippers, control-freak NFL general managers, whole organizations. Showing up isn't always pleasant, but I've always done it anyway. You make your decision, then you take the heat and deal with the screamers (talking to you, CP3!) and whatever else might come your way. And you revel in the magnanimous ones who can take that sort of criticism and act with grace and even professional kindness despite it (hello, LeBron).
That's the deal. That's how it works. That Goodell can't or won't show up isn't right. So let's root for the Patriots to force the issue.
It's what we're about.
And it'll be funny as hell.