Published November 5, 2021
Last season, UB sports law expert Helen “Nellie” Drew extolled the virtues of Buffalo Bills football fans in building a community of hope and healing amid the isolation and discouragement of the pandemic.
This season, Drew, director of the Center for the Advancement of Sport in the School of Law, extends her analysis of the intersection of local culture and sport: The Bills’ ongoing success and popularity has merged with a growing pride, confidence and resurgence of its fan base — locally and nationally — that is about more than just football.
Here’s what Drew, who will moderate Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s Distinguished Speakers Series presentation on Nov. 16, told UBNow:
“Instead of that classic Buffalo collective inferiority complex that bred a ‘brace-for-the-worst’ mentality, the front-running Bills have connected with an emerging pride and celebration of the charms of Western New York.
“In simple terms, the Bills emergence as a top team in the NFL reflects and fuels the growing confidence, popularity and comeback of the city. Buffalo is becoming a place to be from, a place to live in. It’s not a place to run from. It’s the place to come back to.
“There’s a cultural fusion between the ‘quiet bravado’ of the Bills and their thoughtful leadership — including quarterback Josh Allen’s recent embrace of golfer Phil Mickelson’s posture of shedding haphazard emotions for a more-Zen approach — and the community’s growing appreciation of who they are.
“When teaching, I ask students to reflect on what their favorite team brand means to them. I typically post a slide with a picture of the Bills helmet. Interestingly, this year, one student commented, ‘Pain and suffering.’ We all laughed, but the point was valid.
“After surviving so many years of disappointment, Bills Mafia is ready and eager to embrace the new reality. That deep identification between team and the writ large Bills Mafia has connected with a growing awareness and hopeful, celebratory community zeitgeist, one propelled by young people.
“Ex-pat kids scramble to follow the Bills on any media possible. My daughter and UB grad, Theresa, is a member of the (716) in the (617) Club. Every week, pre-game, the game and post-game are reasons for family conversations, text messages and Twitter exchanges. After suffering from so much heartache, they don't want to miss a down.
“There is a qualifier, though. Deep ties to a sports team come with a Faustian bargain: Rise with a team, fall with a team. If identity and affirmation come with an entity beyond personal control, prepare for inevitable disappointment.
“This collective, movable-feast Bills party comes with acknowledgement of qualities that once made Western New York a national punchline. The economy? Print some of those national media reports of growing job opportunities, startup investment capital and a growing sense of enterprising energy.
“The city’s population increased for the first time in 70 years, partially because of its ‘new Americans,’ often overflowing with a determination to succeed. Education? There’s lots of documentation of outstanding UB students who can compete with those from any elite university, and who may have an advantage because they did it without privilege or entitlement.
“Then there is that ultimate irony: Buffalo weather.
“I love Boston. My father’s family comes from there. My relatives live there. Several of my seven kids are in New England, Buffalo fans all. I recently returned from a visit to welcome my first granddaughter and was subjected to not one, but two Nor’easters in one week.
“Driving through moderate rainfall in the early dark afflicting the East Coast in October, dodging bicyclists and pedestrians inexplicably clad in dark clothing attempting to avoid flooded-out streets, I could only think, ‘Who needs this?’ Why would I ever want to leave the convenience, comfort and — let’s be honest — cost of Western New York? Two inches of snow? No problem. Six inches? Get snow tires. Eight? Sounds like a great day for a football game! GO BILLS!”
“Study the unabashed joy of those watching the Halloween experience in Highmark Stadium. Victory Mondays are a thing. They are real.
“For now, listen to the simple messages resounding through that Bills/Bills Mafia culture. Injuries or setbacks? Next person up. Focus on inner strength; find your Zen, rather than the angry rumblings of trying to prove yourself to the world. (‘I don’t play well when I’m frustrated,’ Allen said after the Dolphins game.) Character matters. Success after adversity is sweeter. Behind or in a crisis? Someone make a play (just ask Taron Johnson). Trust the process has become a new millennium ‘Shout’ song.
“Let’s end with this with a quote from General Manager Brandon Beane — my favorite Bills’ quote: “There will be no greater day in Buffalo than when we win it.”