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The Falcons are in the playoffs, earn shot at redemption

Many African-Americans identify closely with Atlanta as culturally the region has played a central role in many defining moments

ATLANTA – As it turned out, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t required to make a bold statement on the last day of the regular season. Regardless of how the Falcons fared against the Carolina Panthers, they clinched the NFC’s final playoff berth because the Seattle Seahawks lost. Still, Atlanta finished well in Sunday’s 22-10 victory. With the memory of the Falcons’ horrific ending from a season ago, a solid closing act entering this postseason was exactly what they needed.

Falcons fans are still coping with the pain of the historic Super Bowl collapse against the New England Patriots. For supporters of any team, squandering a 25-point, second-half lead on professional sports’ biggest stage is about as traumatic as it gets. They’ll likely be salty in these parts for a long stretch.

Outside the Peach State, many black folks were also hot about the Patriots’ 34-28 victory in overtime, which shockingly occurred after the Falcons held a 28-3 lead with just over 17 minutes to play in regulation. The fact is, across the country, a large group of African-Americans identify closely with Atlanta. Culturally, the region has played a central role in many defining moments, beginning with the civil rights movement and continuing today in entertainment. We’re talking about everything from Martin Luther King Jr. to Migos.

The Falcons earned another chance to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which appeared to be headed to Atlanta last season. The Falcons, the only team in the NFC field from last season’s group, will travel to face the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night. They’re back in it.

“We knew everything was on the line,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. “We wanted no ‘except fors.’ We didn’t want to say, ‘Except for this or except for that.’ ”

The Falcons attained that goal. Now, if only they could somehow manage to return to the Super Bowl, face the Patriots again and actually win.

Keanu Neal #22 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates an interception with teammates during the second half against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Facing the Patriots added another level of hurt to the gut-wrenching defeat. And football was only part of the story. To some NFL observers, especially those of color, President Donald Trump’s friendship with the three pillars of the Patriots organization – owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and superstar quarterback Tom Brady – has aligned the franchise with a leader whose rhetoric has been hostile toward people of color.

Kraft and Trump are longtime friends. A vocal supporter of Trump during the presidential campaign, Kraft was among seven NFL owners who gave $1 million each for his inauguration. In a visit to the White House last April to celebrate the Patriots’ fifth championship, Trump spoke glowingly of a letter he received from Belichick. Kraft gave Trump a Super Bowl ring.

In the matchup of Falcons vs. Patriots, Harry Edwards understands why some African-Americans on social media viewed the Falcons through the best lens.

Since the 1960s, Edwards, a longtime adviser to the San Francisco 49ers, has been at the forefront of the discussion about race and sports. There are teams that stir feelings about a particular worldview among spectators, Edwards said, and the Falcons are on the list.

“Different camps of fans have always projected their most heartfelt social-cultural sentiments onto the sports entities that they support,” Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email to The Undefeated. “The Pittsburgh Steelers are ‘Blue-collar.’ The LA Lakers are ‘Showtime.’ The San Francisco 49ers are a ‘finesse-and-white-wine’ team. The Oakland Raiders are iconoclastic, an ‘outlaw’ team. The Patriots are a ‘right-of-center-conservative-values’ team.

“And, yes, the Atlanta Falcons – from the city of Dr. King’s New South – have come to be associated more closely with ‘black identity’ and black advancement, etc. When such imagery and representations become part of fan/team identity, opposing fan bases also tend to become increasingly invested in a quest to defeat the representational imagery as much as in the defeat of the opposing teams in question.”

Through the years, other teams as well as individual athletes have occupied the role the Falcons do now. After Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers gained legions of black fans. Texas Western College (now the University of Texas, El Paso) made history in 1966, becoming the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win the NCAA men’s tournament. The Miners became an inspiration during the civil rights movement.

Also in the 1960s, then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali risked his career to speak out about racial inequality and the Vietnam War. At a time when Jim Brown was the NFL’s best player and Bill Russell was the NBA’s top winner, they became cultural icons for using their celebrity to effect positive social change.

When teams and individual athletes are viewed as being essential to a political struggle, it only increases their supporters’ desire to see them succeed. USC law professor Jody David Armour knows all about it.

Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, said the Falcons are carrying on an important tradition that must continue.

Ricardo Allen #37 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates beating the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Sports is not just entertainment and recreation. For many people, it’s a form of political struggle. It’s a political contest between vying forces,” Armour said by phone. “We invest in our teams and our athletes. We look at them with a special kind of significance, a special kind of political significance. So how they perform reflects on the political position that we were taking. When our players or team that represents something to us symbolically triumphs, our cause triumphs, our principles triumph, that person represented triumphs.

“By the same token, when they are defeated, we also feel a little bit of the defeat of what they symbolically stood for. What they represented, with the cause they came to be identified with, it hurts more than just losing a game on the football field or the basketball court, etc. There’s a natural kind of grieving process that a fan base will go through when they just don’t see two teams out on the field competing. When they see two ways of looking at the world, two contending ways of looking at the world, and their hopes were dashed, the pain is much greater.”

Falcons fans definitely know the feeling. They’ll hope for a better outcome this time. Black folks who look to the Falcons for more than what merely happens on the field will be counting on it.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.