Prior to Super Bowl XLI in 2007, my brother and I engaged in a lengthy theological debate: Was it morally permissible to root for the Indianapolis Colts — to whom we had been passionately devoted when they were the Baltimore Colts — in their contest with Da Bears of Chicago? The question was not easily resolved, and it took a great deal of casuistry to reach a reasonable conclusion.
On the one hand, the Irsay family, heirs of the arch-fiend Robert Irsay — who had loaded our team’s equipment and memorabilia into 15 Mayflower moving vans at 2 a.m. on March 29, 1984, and spirited the Colts away to Indianapolis — were still involved in the team’s ownership. Onthe other hand, there was Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, a disciple of the great John Unitas, whom we had regarded as little less than a demigod; Manning had taken the number 18 on his blue-and-white Colts jersey in deference to the Master, who had been number 19.
On the other other hand, we were bereft of a team, as the Baltimore Ravens were simply the old Cleveland Browns, whom we had hated with a passion back in the day, tarted up in ghetto colors befitting a team whose principal star had barely escaped a homicide rap; becoming Ravens fans (which would have instantly resolved the dilemma over whether to root for the Colts) would have jeopardized our moral superiority, for Baltimore had done unto Cleveland — i.e., stolen its team — as Indianapolis had done unto Baltimore. And on the other other other hand, there were those horseshoe helmets, which instantly evoked memories and sentiments not unlike those nurtured for decades by otherwise sane adults who insist that Walter O’Malley, having moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, was down there in the pit of hell with Hitler and Stalin. (The truth is that the real villain in that piece was Robert Moses, but I digress; and in any event, facts have never gotten in the way of mythmakers like Pete Hamill and other literary Dodger acolytes.)
As I say, sorting this all out took some time, but my brother and I eventually reached a morally defensible decision: It was not permissible to root actively for the Colts so long as Clan Irsay was involved in ownership and no member of the clan had apologized for the theft; but it was permissible to take modest pleasure in the Colts’ success.
No such twisting and turning in the winds of casuistry will be involved this Sunday, when the Colts take on the New York Jets for the AFC championship and a berth in Super Bowl XLIV: It will be all Colts, all the time, as Manning & Co. seek what for us old Baltimore Colts fans would be sweet payback for the events of January 12, 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath led the AFL upstart Jets to a 16–7 Super Bowl III victory over what the accursed Sports Illustrated cover had dubbed, the week before, “The Irresistible Colts.” I was just shy of 18 at the time and still remember the numb feeling that came over me on what was, then and quite possibly still, the worst day of my life.
More was to come in that annus horribilis, as the Baltimore Bullets were knocked out of the NBA playoffs by the New York Knicks and, dies irae, dies illa, the New York Mets took the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series. But the defeat of the Colts by the Jets had an especially bitter flavor. Throughout the Sixties, the Colts, who had put the NFL on the map of American sports consciousness by their sudden-death overtime defeat of the New York Giants on December 28, 1958, had played brilliant football, with a team that, like the Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, embodied an America striving to come to grips with its original sin, racism. And if Unitas, Gino Marchetti, Artie Donovan, Raymond Berry, Jim Mutscheller, and other Colts stars weren’t quite in a league with Pee Wee Reese as heroes of integration (for Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, and Big Daddy Lipscomb had to put up with a hell of a lot less than Jackie Robinson), they were still men of principle and character who helped teach a once deeply segregated city the truth about color-blindness. Moreover, the Colts were seriously old-school — Unitas wore those black high-top shoes; Donovan, a defensive tackle, prepared for football combat by taping old issues of Time and Newsweek around his shins; Marchetti chain-smoked Luckies during halftime — and the Jets were perhaps the first team to embody the transition of American professional sports into a sector of the entertainment industry, what with Namath’s mouthing off, his skirt-chasing, and his then seemingly outrageous $400,000 contract. To lose to the Jets was to concede more than a game; it was to concede the loss of a culture.
But lose the Colts did, and I’ve never forgotten. Thus, a quarter-century after Robert Irsay’s perfidy, I am prepared, if not to let bygones be bygones, then at least not to go into dithyrambs of moral soul-searching over Whom I Want to Win on Sunday. When it’s Colts vs. Jets, I wouldn’t care if they were the Rawalpindi Colts. May they grind the Jets into the dust (cf. Psalm 58:6).
– George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.