Generally speaking, there’s two components to a football team’s game plan. The first is team identity: who are we, what do we do well, where are our advantages? The second involves adapting that identity in order to actually beat opponents—finding and punishing their weaknesses; taking away their strengths. Most NFL teams fervently cling to their team identity but get shellacked by anyone that can exploit the holes in it. This is what makes the New England Patriots both the greatest football dynasty of the last twenty years (maybe ever) and also the fucking worst goddamn football dynasty of the last twenty years (maybe ever). Their strategy is always hyper-focused on taking away the opponent’s strongest player and making them fight at a disadvantage. Yet the Patriots team identity is out front, well known, and easily marketable: Do Your Job. In broad strokes, the idea is that the way to win is to suit up, shut up, and do what the coach says. This is a team whose best players are routinely traded away just as they’re due to get paid. The working-class ideology begets success while marginalizing its participants. What could be more American? Individual achievement gets subsumed by the whole, unless, of course, you’re the boss—which is why the two most visible Patriots are its leaders and, by the way, they’re both openly pro-MAGA, a fact that is staggeringly on-brand.
Ben Passmore’s Sports Is Hell takes place during a parallel universe Super Bowl that pits an undeniably Patriots-esque team called, hilariously, the Whites against a stand-in for the Philadelphia Eagles called the Birds. The Birds’ star wide receiver, Marshall Quandary Collins, kneels during every National Anthem in order to protest police brutality. His protests are a point of contention between two television announcers who look like mascots—B for the Birds and the shark-like W for the Whites—but operate as a sort of Greek chorus throughout the book. Their stances on Collins come to represent the ideology of each team and its fans, and it quickly becomes clear that Sports Is Hell isn’t about football as much as it’s about the kind of cultural tribalism that football tends to inspire and what happens when allegiance becomes shorthand for identity.
In the shadow of the stadium, we meet several factions of Birds fans. These include two young black anarchists, eager for the inevitable post-game riot; a white hipster couple eagerly on their way to a Black Lives Matter rally; and an older gentleman in a Collins t-shirt who wryly introduces himself as “the best kind of black person… a revolutionary!” Passmore, who also contributes political cartoons to The Nib, uses characters the same way he uses the football teams. They each represent a specific ideology. When the Super Bowl ends abruptly and the city’s power grid collapses, Passmore uses the neighborhood around the stadium as a crucible in which these ideologies—most of whom are ostensibly on the same side—violently clash, ultimately exposing the contradictions and weaknesses within each of them.
Passmore builds characters the way football teams build game plans. He identifies each character’s political belief system in broad strokes, then puts them in high-pressure situations that test their ideals. Sure enough, everyone has a soft spot. The militant black nationalists are misogynists; diehard Birds fans turn passive when challenged by Whites fans; Collins is a millionaire and therefore inherently disconnected from the people he’s for whom he’s protesting. Passmore’s art is mix of political cartoon symbolism and character-crafting detail. He is at his most deliberate at multi-faceted when it comes to clothes and personal style. (The cover features a football player with a near Liefeldian amount of weapons and pouches strapped to him.) During the riots, the sepia toned book becomes a maze of smoke, shadows and very specific trash—Wonder Bread, head boppers, a picket sign that says “Taters.”
The book seems more content to expose hypocrisy than to espouse Passmore’s own ethics. The closest thing we have to a protagonist spends the book being reactive rather than proactive, and her final act is dismissing her former belief system rather than embracing a new one. But there’s value in the polemic, and Sports Is Hell is ultimately a story of flawed individuals coming together to defeat a greater danger. Over the course of the night, the Birds vs. White Super Bowl gets played out not by the teams, but by the fans. Interestingly, while the Birds fans are split into factions, the Whites fans seem united in a singular, let’s say, supreme goal. Yet, for as rigid and flawed as each of the Birds’ fans factions can be, they provide a blueprint for winning that’s more complicated than simply suiting up, shutting up, and obeying the boss.